Escalating India-Pakistan conflict a major headache for China & US

Escalating India-Pakistan conflict a major headache for China & US
With skirmishes between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan over Kashmir threatening to boil over into open warfare, one of the major questions is what role Washington and Beijing will take in the conflict.

Indian jets bombed targets in the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir, claiming that Islamabad had done nothing to crack down on the terrorist group had carried out the Pulwama suicide attack killing 42 Indian security officers earlier this month. Pakistan responded by shooting down at least one Indian bomber and capturing its pilot. India acknowledged the loss but said it had shot down a Pakistani aircraft as well.

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There were multiple reports on Wednesday of both India and Pakistan moving tanks to the border and closing down schools in preparation for the possible escalation of hostilities.

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The conflict has also put the US and China in a difficult position, as they both have vested interests in the subcontinent – and in countering each other.

China’s dilemma

Beijing and Delhi have frequently butted heads in the past, among other things about the Aksai Chin region of Kashmir claimed by India but controlled by China since 1962. China has developed a military alliance with Pakistan since the 1970s, with Beijing currently one of Islamabad’s major trading partners and the largest supplier of weapons.

This has led some Russian scholars to speculate that the US might tacitly approve of the current conflict as a way to keep China away from building up its maritime strength in the Pacific.

“The US is interested to have China get involved in a maximum number of conflicts,” Aleksey Kupriyanov, a researcher at the Moscow-based Institute of World Economy and International Relations, told RT. “Any conflict would slow down Chinese economic growth, which would mean less danger for the US hegemony in the Pacific.”

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Kupriyanov believes China will try not to interfere in the dispute, balancing the relations with its old ally Pakistan and India, seen as an important new trade partner.

Smruti S. Pattanaik, research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, also believes China will not meddle, but said Beijing could use its influence to make it clear to Islamabad that terrorism will not be tolerated.

“At the moment de-escalation is not plausible. For any de-escalation Pakistan has to take visible action against terror groups,”Pattanaik told RT, referring to the jihadist Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which India accuses Pakistan of harboring. 

US can’t afford to take sides

The rapidly escalating conflict has raised alarm in the US, coming just as the Trump administration was focusing on the second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi.

“[US] foreign policy leaders are very much focused on what's happening in Vietnam and we don't know if there is enough attention being put on the India-Pakistan issue, which in my view presents a real risk of a crisis right now,” Manpreet Singh Anand, former deputy assistant secretary for South Asia in the State Department, told CNBC.

Washington has been wooing New Delhi for the past several years, going so far as to rename its Pacific Command to “Indo-Pacific” and signing weapons deals with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, hoping to use India as a regional counterweight to China.

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“If India gets bogged down by South Asian conflict, then it cannot participate in broader foreign policy matters. With the rise of China, the US wants India to play a bigger role in Asian policy,” said Rick Rossow of the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).

However, if Washington backs India, Pakistan could retaliate against US interests – such as continued supply of US troops in Afghanistan, Rossow pointed out.

Further complicating things is the fact that both the US and Saudi Arabia have courted Pakistan as a launching pad for hostilities against the neighboring Iran, but neither country wants a conflict with India at the moment.

READ MORE: Nuclear Pakistan and India can’t afford miscalculation, should resolve crisis, says PM Khan

Pakistani PM Imran Khan has called for negotiations with India, pointing out that both countries have nuclear weapons and cannot affair “miscalculation.”

“We should sit down and talk,” Khan said on Wednesday. “Better sense should prevail.”

His Indian counterpart Modi, however, is facing an election in April and is under tremendous pressure to appear strong and patriotic to his nationalist base.

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