China’s stakes and vulnerabilities in South Asia have grown. U.S. leaders should make use of this.
Ten years have passed since 26/11, the three-day assault by Pakistan-based terrorists in Mumbai that stands as India’s analogue to the 9/11 attacks in the United States. During and after the attack, U.S. officials were central to the crisis-management effort that prevented a larger conflict between India and Pakistan. Today, it is unclear whether the United States could play that role, thanks to the decline in its capacity for crisis management in South Asia. But as U.S.-Pakistan relations deteriorate, Chinese influence in Pakistan grows — as does Beijing’s economic and geostrategic stakes in maintaining stability in the region. Both U.S. and Chinese action may be necessary to walk the region back from a nuclear brink, and so U.S. leaders should adapt to changed circumstances by working with Chinese and other counterparts to shape co-management mechanisms.
Historically, the United States has been the sole major third-party crisis manager in South Asia. Particularly since India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998, the United States has taken a hands-on approach, pressng both sides to de-escalate. China’s interests and involvement have historically been much more limited. However, in a book chapter published by the Stimson Center earlier this year, I demonstrate that China’s role as a third-party crisis manager in South Asia has gradually grown. Unlike the U.S. approach, China’s role has been mostly bilateral and limited to quiet, backroom diplomacy. Diplomatic initiatives by China to encourage de-escalation in the 1999 Kargil War and 2001-2002 “Twin Peaks” crisis, for example, focused largely on Pakistan. But by 2008, when the terrorists struck Mumbai, China had begun playing a third-party role more like that of a great-power broker. It engaged in public bilateral “shuttle diplomacy” with both India and Pakistan, sending high-ranking, political and military officials to both New Delhi and Islamabad, as well as bringing their Indian and Pakistani counterparts to Beijing.
Since then, nuclear and conventional arms buildup in the region has raised the potential costs of escalation. The possibility of a future India-Pakistan crisis remains high—all against a backdrop of heightened firing across the Line of Control, growing fissile material stockpiles, evolving strategic doctrines, and developments in nuclear delivery systems. Meanwhile, U.S. leverage in Pakistan is in decline, and both the preparedness and inclination of the Trump administration to play the traditional U.S. third-party crisis manager role in a future India-Pakistan standoff is uncertain.
China’s considerable incentives to ensure stability between India and Pakistan are further bolstered by its current and planned investment in the region through its Belt and Road Initiative. BRI’s flagship is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, representing an investment of more than $50 billion. Beyond that, the number of Chinese nationals living in Pakistan to work on these mega projects is multiplying quickly—from 2007 estimates at 5,000, to 2017 estimates at 30,000, to a 2023 forecast of 500,000 for Gwadar port residents alone. This Chinese diaspora introduces a new escalation risk. Consider the potential costs if India were to take retaliatory action against Pakistan for a Mumbai-like attack that inadvertently resulted in the death of Chinese nationals or destruction of Chinese investments in Pakistan. Analysts disagree on just what circumstances could turn Beijing into a supporter of Islamabad rather than a third-party crisis manager, but at least some envision it as a possibility.
Beyond stakes and exposure in Pakistan itself, China is increasingly investing economic and political capital throughout South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. The costs of an India-Pakistan crisis spinning out of control would be lasting and widespread, hurting Chinese economic and geostrategic plans for the region.
U.S. interests in preventing mushroom clouds over the subcontinent would be well served by considering—and engaging in bilateral dialogue to plan—how China might be of use in crisis management in the future. The depleted state of U.S.-Pakistan relations indicates the United States will need China to help bring Pakistan to the table for negotiating de-escalation. India and China’s increasing economic and geopolitical competition in small states, together with the securitization of the Indian Ocean Region, will complicate any Chinese efforts at third-party mediation. A future India-Pakistan crisis will therefore likely require both U.S. and Chinese involvement to prevent escalation. Preparing for this multiplayer crisis management scenario requires new research and creative policymaking—both of which could draw useful lessons from and have interesting implications for the nuclear-tinged crisis unfolding on the Korean peninsula today.