U.S. Retreat from Pakistan is Not in India’s Interests by Yogesh Joshi

As the state of U.S.-Pakistan relations continues to worsen, there is an increase in engagement across the border between India and Pakistan. While the Obama administration was busy designating the Haqqani network as a terrorist organization, the Indian foreign minister was visiting Islamabad negotiating greater economic engagement and a relaxation in visa regimes between the two nations.

The decline in U.S.-Pakistan relationship and this sudden bonhomie between two traditional rivals in South Asia are not isolated events. Rather, diplomacy with India is a part of a concerted effort by Pakistan to counter the decline of its relationship with the U.S. The threat of economic collapse without the largesse of the U.S. has made Pakistan open to the idea of a stronger economic relationship with India. To secure itself strategically, Pakistan has also started embracing China with a renewed vigor. This is evident in expanding military engagement between the two, which includes joint military exercises as well as joint production of military hardware. Sino-Pakistan nuclear cooperation is also a part of the same strategy.  Strategically getting closer to China and economically embracing India has, therefore, become Pakistan's strategy to counter the breakdown in its relationship with the U.S. and its effects on its strategic and economic health.

While Pakistan is doing its best to prepare for a diminished U.S. role in the region, the retreat of the U.S. from the South Asian region might not be beneficial to India’s cause. The argument of economic interdependence notwithstanding, the United States’ decreasing influence in Pakistan’s polity could adversely affect India’s strategic interests in the long term, especially when it comes to stability during crises in the region.

Some would argue that the economic interdependence between India and Pakistan precludes the possibility of conflict, but historically it has been no guarantee. Germany and Britain boasted one of the highest volumes of trade in global history during the late 18th and early 19th century. Still, this tight economic interdependence could not stop them from going to war in 1914. A contemporary example concerns China and Japan. The volume of trade between the two super-economies of Asia is close to 340 billion dollars. However, even such extraordinary interdependence has not been able to calm their territorial anxieties as is evident in the conflict over the contested islands in the East China Sea. Some Japanese business houses are packing their bags and leaving lucrative commercial investments in China.

Trade volume between India and Pakistan is not even one percent ($3 Billion) of Sino-Japanese trade. Also, the two nations not only share a bloody history, but also have a serious ongoing territorial dispute over Kashmir. To think, therefore, that economic interdependence will bring peace in the region is a utopian dream.

If reliance on economics as a driver of peace in South Asia is ill founded, it is important to acknowledge that strained bilateral ties between Pakistan and the U.S.--the principal driver behind Pakistan’s decision to open up economically--is not in India’s strategic interests. Though non-interference in bilateral relationship has always been India’s preferred position, it has in the past asked the U.S. to use its political influence in diffusing acute crisis situations between the two nuclear rivals in South Asia. In fact, if one looks at the history of last twenty or so years, U.S. involvement has been one of the major reasons behind crisis de-escalation in South Asia. This was evident in the Blair House meeting between Prime Minister Nawaj Sharif and President Bill Clinton at the height of the Kargil war in 1999. As a result of the meeting, Pakistan formally announced its decision to retreat from Indian territory. Similarly, India amassed half a million troops on its Western borders in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the Indian parliament. In such an extremely volatile situation, the U.S. provided India a face-saving exit from the brink of escalation by pressurizing President Pervez Musharraf to clearly renounce terrorism as a state policy. As U.S. influence wanes, it will become even more difficult to head off conflict scenarios between India and Pakistan.

The retreat of the U.S. will also inevitably result in the resurgence of China in the South Asian scene. A number of commentators have argued that China is extremely shy of any long-term strategic commitment to Pakistan. However, alliance politics often result in entrapment for the more powerful partners. China has a strategic interest in Pakistan, but it might find itself getting more involved in the region than it presently envisions. However, given the historic rivalry between India and China, the direct source of conflict in the form of the border dispute and both nations’ quest for leadership in Asia, such a situation could become geo-politically explosive.

Therefore, unlike many who think that a U.S. exit from Pakistan’s strategic landscape may be beneficial for India, the actual results of the U.S. retreat may be far more dangerous in times of crisis or escalation in the subcontinent.

Yogesh Joshi is a Ph.D candidate at the Center for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and a CSIS-Pacific Forum Young Leader