Counter-Balancing the Sino-Pak Axis in the Indo-Pacific Region

Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean continues to grow, more or less with help from Pakistan. The development of Gwadar port, in particular, has brought China and Pakistan ever closer. In April, China was granted management rights to the port for 40 years. In addition, the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project also has important geo-strategic implications for India. China is also increasing its profile in the South China Sea – China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) is a step in this direction.

The convergence of strategic interests between China and Pakistan vis-à-vis India is nothing new. What’s new and alarming is Pakistan’s facilitating Chinese access to the Indian Ocean, which India considers its backyard. Undoubtedly such access is important to China for economic reasons, since 70 percent of its oil supply and almost 80 percent of its total trade comes from the Gulf. By developing Gwadar port and transporting strategic materials overland through Pakistan, China will save both money and time. China is currently using the port for commercial purposes; however, it could conceivably use the facility to support military operations in the future.

Both India and ASEAN are apprehensive of such initiatives. Japan and Vietnam hope that India will act as a natural counterweight to China in the South China Sea. Since Narendra Modi’s coming into power in New Delhi, India’s “Look East” policy – which has been revamped as “Act East” – focuses on building stronger ties with regional actors like Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia, and aims to balance China’s strategic and economic predominance.

India’s involvement in the East and South China Sea (e.g., India-Vietnam collaboration for oil exploration, joint naval exercises with Australia and the United States, etc.) has attracted Chinese attention. New Delhi’s ties with Japan and other Southeast Asian countries do not go unnoticed in Beijing. As quid pro quo, China is playing the Pakistan card to counterbalance India.

Pragmatically, New Delhi has maintained a safe distance from the rivalry between China and the United States. Undoubtedly, India would like to have a stake in East Asia and the Narendra Modi government recognizes the economic and strategic importance of the South China Sea. In joint statements with the United States, Vietnam, and at other multilateral summits, India has publicly articulated its concern about maritime instability in the region.

Just as China is using Pakistan to advance its interests in the Indian Ocean region, India should use ASEAN’s help to expand its reach in Southeast Asia. A stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region is a vital Indian interest. To further this interest, New Delhi may consider providing defense equipment, especially the BrahMos missile (with the cognizance of Russia), to interested Southeast Asian partners. This would undoubtedly be perceived as provocative in Beijing, and would clearly signal India’s strategic intentions. China may consider retaliatory steps, like making Gwadar port a naval base or deploying its nuclear submarines as a tit-for-tat tactic to India’s assertive posture. It is important for India to expedite the development of Chabahar port in Iran, along with outfitting the Kandla or Mundra port in Gujarat with required modernization. Chabahar port will connect India to the International North-South Transport Corridor, linking India to Central Asia and Russia via Iran, and is important in the endeavor to gain strategic benefits as this route will cut transit time to Russia and Central Asia. However, this will take a few years as Chabahar first needs to be connected to the Iranian railway network at Zahedan, capital of Sistan-Baluchistan province of Iran. Tehran has recently offered New Delhi a proposal to build the required rail link.

India should signal loud and clear its strategic concerns vis-à-vis the China-Pakistan axis without being unnecessarily provocative. It is crucial to convey the message that India will not tolerate China’s double standard of its warning to New Delhi against oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea while developing its own economic corridor with the support from Pakistan.


Image: Iori Sagisawa-Pool, Getty

Posted in , China, Pakistan

Phalak Vyas

Phalak Vyas is pursuing a master's degree in international relations and political science from Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, Gandhinagar. His areas of interests are Indian foreign policy and the Indian Ocean region. He plans to pursue a career as a policy analyst.

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3 thoughts on “Counter-Balancing the Sino-Pak Axis in the Indo-Pacific Region

  1. Who is India to object to CPEC?

    India would definitely try to sabotage the agreement between China and Pakistan but Pakistan will have to respond with full determination. China has already warned Pakistan of RAW’s intentions of sabotaging CPEC with help from local militants.

    and I have a feeling this project will go ahead and will be completed. Pakistan does have the ability to safeguard its interests, identify and shun anti-state elements from among ourselves and defend against any foreign covert or overt aggression.

  2. India should not be bothered about any axis between X, Y or Z. It needs to focus on its own interests and pursue them. History tells us that the life of any totalitarian dictatorship like China is short. For how long can people be deprived of freedom ? Freedom to think, freedom to speak, freedom to assemble, freedom to protest, freedom to form political parties — cannot be suppressed forever. The Chinese people will take care of China, no one needs to lose sleep over it. A new culturally vibrant, free and friendly China that the world can love will emerge from the present, sooner than later. Till then let them fight their own ghosts.

  3. Despite the existence of a Union Cabinet and its specialised committees, India has so failed to institutionalise coordinated action by various ministries and departments for acheiving the goals agreed upon by the Cabinet. For example, the decision to wind up some PSU’s is stymied by the ministries that control them. This is not a crique of the present government but a feature of almost all governments in the past. In such a situation, the need for a national consensus on a foreign policy seems to be a pipe dream. Nevertheless without the existense of an institutionalised mechanism to to arrive at such a policy, India will not be seen as a State that will act in a determined manner to effectvely secure its national interests. So at the very outset, India suffers from an adverse perception as lacking national consensus and consequenly political will to formulate a long term foreign policy.
    Such a policy should not be seen as a slightly extended exercise in border management involving the Home Ministry, the Defence Ministry and the Foreign Ministry and an exercise with so many wrappings of secrecy and security that inputs into such a formulation are only from civil servants. Foreign Policy involves a formulation of how India views the World both in terms of existing ground realities as well as an analysis based projection of possible transitions and possible Indian interventions to influence these to favour India’s interests.
    India has failed to fully utilise inputs from academics, media persons, professionals in diverse fields such as industry, shipping, commerce and finance to name a few. Identification of such advisers and giving them appropriate security clearance based on positive and periodic security vetting, such practices are routine in most major countries.
    India has to officially reassure its significant Muslim minorities that they are regarded as above any imputation of being divided in their loyalties. This has to mean completely stopping all well intended speeches, slogans, assertions and so on. Instead there should be harsh, condign and summary punishment for acting or saying anything that insinuates anything that is prejudicial to Muslims. This is important because muslims who are subjected to taunts, suspicion and physical harm because of their religion are more likely to be inveigled by appeals to religious sentiments by foreign entities. Indian foreign policy will have to based on its assesment of the situation in West Asia, Palestine, Israel and Central Europe as well as East and South East Asia including Phillipines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
    In concusion it must remember that friendships are temporary only interests are permanent.

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