India, Pakistan, and China

Remarks at the Center for Naval Analysis Conference with India’s National Maritime Foundation

I have been asked to speak about the strategic interaction between India, Pakistan, and China – the three great powers of South Asia.  The legacies of the British Empire and the early years of the Cold War trump geographic features like the Himalayas and Karakorams in determining the region’s strategic geometry.  The past continues to describe the framework within which its major actors form and follow their respective national security policies.  So far, sea power’s role in their interaction is more speculative than actual.  In this case, byplay in the land and in the air will most likely determine what happens in the surrounding, Indian Ocean.

The British for the first time in history united the entire subcontinent under a single sovereignty.  In doing so, they displaced its Muslim overlords from power.  When the British left India, rather than accept a subordinate political status under majority Hindu rule, Muslim majority regions sought self-determination in the state of Pakistan.  In many respects, Indo-Pakistani interaction resembles an uncompleted civil war as much or more than an international conflict.   In this context, the continuing strife in Kashmir has never ceased to be the defining center of South Asian communal conflict.  Meanwhile, the Delhi-centered hegemony of the British Raj lives on, with all in the region except Pakistan and Chinese Tibet subordinate to tutelage from Delhi.

As India’s rulers, the British sought to establish Tibet and Afghanistan as buffer states within the orbit of their Raj.  To this end, they sent repeated Anglo-Indian military expeditions into both.  They drew lines on maps of unfamiliar terrain to demarcate spheres of influence for India.  Within these spheres, they sought to exercise direct or indirect control in order to deny strategic advantages to great power rivals in areas adjacent to India. 

At their independence, India and Pakistan both claimed these unilaterally imposed British lines as their legal frontiers, though India subsequently redrew the McMahon line to push it farther into historically Tibetan territory.  For their part, China and Afghanistan have never accepted the legitimacy of these frontiers.  Still, with the exception of the never implemented British-backed claim of Kashmir to part of the Tibetan plateau (Aksai Chin), both have honored these lines in practice.  To a remarkable extent, the lines the British drew or – in the case of Kashmir, did not draw – and the outcomes of policies the viceroys adopted are at the root of many of South Asia’s ongoing tensions.

China ‘s 1950’s era offer to settle its border with India on the basis of uti possidetis juris – establishment of borders on the basis of actual control rather than notional lines on colonial maps – was rejected by India.  The Sino-Indian war of 1962 reestablished the line of actual control earlier fixed by China, but also gave rise to a related territorial dispute between India and Nepal.  Intermittent discussions of a border settlement have since failed to resolve either Sino-Indian or Indian-Nepalese differences.  In the wake of the hostilities between India and China, in 1963 Pakistan reached an interim settlement of its border with China on the basis of uti possidetis juris, pending resolution of the status of Kashmir.  Today, India’s northern borders are once again in a state of escalating politico-military tension.
In the 1950s, India colluded with American covert action programs aimed at the strategic distraction of China through the destabilization of Tibet.  When these programs helped produce a failed revolt and the flight of the Dalai Lama from Tibet in 1959, India became the site of a Tibetan government in exile.  In 1961, Nehru adopted a “forward policy” of military challenge to enforce territorial claims to areas north of the Chinese line of control in the Himalayas.  Having become convinced that independent India was, like British India, intent on challenging its control of Tibet – this time with both American and Soviet encouragement, China pushed Indian forces away from the border in 1962.

Many of the elements of this tragic scenario are now back in play.  In the absence of any Indo-American covert action program, Chinese paranoia readily supplies one by misconstruing international support for the Dalai Lama and sympathy for violent Tibetan rioters.  India continues to augment its forces along the Sino-Indian frontier and to step up its patrols.  It appears to China once again to be challenging the line of actual control.  China has accelerated the construction of railroads and roads that will facilitate rapid deployment of its forces to the border region if they are needed there.  This infrastructure will, not incidentally, make Tibetan natural resources for the first time available to the Chinese national economy. 

Meanwhile, resumed talks on a border settlement have catalyzed restatements by both sides of claims that draw angry rejection from the other.  Many in India seem to be clamoring for some sort of redress for the country’s military humiliation by China nearly five decades ago.  One does not know how seriously to take this.  Still, despite the rapid growth of interdependence between the Indian and Chinese economies, the escalating tensions in the Himalayas constitute a dangerous situation that bears close watching.  They also have the potential to complicate strategic cooperation between the United States and India.

So does the worsening situation in Kashmir.  The emergence of a nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan made India’s overwhelming conventional military superiority over Pakistan much less relevant than it had been.  This shifted the military contention between the two countries into the realm of unconventional and asymmetric warfare.  Pakistan is not unhappy that the escalating insurgency in Kashmir ties down hundreds of thousands of Indian troops and security forces.  At the same time, the situation in Kashmir fuels a campaign of terrorism against India by various groups there, in India proper, and in Pakistan.  India, for its part, has become much more active in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s strategic backyard, where the Karzai government has its roots in the Indian-backed Northern Alliance. 

If India’s interaction with the Tibetan region of China is in many respects analogous to that of the country’s British past, Pakistan too has fallen heir to the policies of British India.  Islamabad has sought strategic denial of Afghanistan to its enemies, both Russia (in the form of the 1980’s Soviet Union) and contemporary India.  As Americans are learning to our distress, policies in South Asia – especially those directed at the region around the Durand Line – that ignore Indo-Pakistani strategic rivalry do not work.

Since its inception in 1947, Muslim Pakistan has been desperately concerned to secure its independence from its Hindu brethren in the far larger, more powerful republic of India, which “vivisected” it in 1971.  This has led Pakistan into an erratic alliance with the United States, with which it has worked against common enemies – as a member of the Baghdad Pact, as a launch point for U-2 overflights of the USSR, in jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and, more recently, against the terrorists with global reach in its Afghan borderlands.  When Sino-Indian rivalry burst into the open in 1962, this catalyzed a relationship of long-term Pakistani strategic dependence on China. 

On several occasions, Pakistan has been able to serve as the common partner of both the United States and China.  The U.S. opening to China in 1971 was, of course, brokered through Pakistan and China was a full partner in Pakistan’s American-backed effort to dislodge the USSR from Afghanistan.  Pakistan’s ability intermittently to conduct parallel programs of cooperation with both the United States and China has, however, never enabled it to craft joint Sino-American actions or to develop a reliable long-term partnership with Washington as well as Beijing.

For its part, China’s interaction with India and Pakistan has been remarkably consistent over the decades.  China’s interests in the region are dominated by its desire to avoid challenges to sovereignty and territorial integrity in that part of its territory – Tibet – that makes China part of South Asia.  This is a fundamentally defensive posture, consistent with China’s efforts to preserve a peaceful international environment on its periphery.  Tranquil borders are essential to Chinese national efforts to achieve renewal, development, and prosperity. 

Given these interests, all things being equal, China can be counted upon to be fully supportive of the South Asian status quo.  China has de facto control of the borders it claims for Tibet with India, including Kashmir, as well as with Pakistan.  It seeks to confirm, rather than alter these borders.  In the absence of external backing for India against it, despite acute apprehensions in Delhi, China has not in fact sought to challenge Indian hegemony where it is effective, as in Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, or Sri Lanka.  Nor, of course, has it been prepared to aid or abet Indian domination of buffer states like Nepal or strategic adversaries like Pakistan.

But when India is allied with a great power hostile to China, as it was in the British era or during India’s Cold War flirtation with the U.S. and its de facto alignment with the USSR, China responds with efforts to counter India.  China’s willingness to step up support for Pakistan in the 1960s is a case in point.  China was not deterred by the fact that Pakistan’s American allies were still determined to isolate and overthrow the government in Beijing. The potential for a vigorous Chinese effort to undermine Indian hegemony in South Asia needs to be born in mind.  The anti-China entente in Asia that some propose – to unite India, Japan, and Vietnam with the United States in balancing China – could come with a high price tag.  Is it in India’s or America’s interest to risk stimulating Chinese policies directed at altering the South Asian status quo?  By any standard, that status quo is now highly favorable to India.

In this connection, it is noteworthy that India clearly regards China as its principal rival for influence in Asia but that China has not viewed India in the same light.  China still sees India in South Asian regional, not pan-Asian, terms.  For China, India is both the dominant power in South Asia and a potential source of interference in the Tibet Autonomous Region, not a rival in the broader arenas of the Eurasian landmass or its adjacent seas.  The imbalance in the weight India and China assign each other in their national security strategies galls many Indians, who see it as China slighting their country.  But it is arguably a much more secure position for India than the alternative. 

Most projections suggest that in 2050, China will have a GDP that is about twice as large as the United States or India, which will have achieved parity with the United States in economic size.  An India that has succeeded on that scale need not fear Pakistan.  A China that has grown to that extent will not fear rivalry with Americans and Indians, but should continue to see the advantages of cooperation with both.  Such an outcome would be facilitated by an early end to tussling over the line of control in the Himalayas and the establishment of an order in Kashmir that is accepted as legitimate by its inhabitants.  Neither task is easy.  But accomplishing both, not inviting tests of strength or inventing new forms of adversarial relationships, should be the focus of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and American policy.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., USFS (Ret.)

Alexandria, Virginia

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top