WASHINGTON — In rolling out his strategy for Afghanistan on Aug. 21, U.S. President Donald Trump made clear that a change in the relationship with Pakistan is in the cards.
But regional experts warn that any change in Washington’s posture to Islamabad will impact two regional powers — China, America’s greatest rival in the Pacific, and India, an increasingly vital ally — that are currently feuding over a border dispute.
Alice Hunt Friend, an Obama-era senior adviser to the deputy undersecretary of defense for strategy, plans and forces and country director for Pakistan, calls the region “a conundrum,” adding, “This is a Gordian Knot,” in part, because of the necessity to factor in China and India for any big picture strategy.
One attention-grabbing facet of Trump’s speech was a public call for India to take on a broader role in Afghanistan.
“We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development,” Trump said.
Friend, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes that such a call could, to Pakistan, sound like a threat to their longtime goal of “strategic depth” — essentially the idea that Pakistan cannot let itself be encircled by India in the south and an Indian-affiliated government in Afghanistan to the north.
The U.S. has historically been careful about balancing a desire for more Indian support in Afghanistan with Pakistan’s concerns, she said, which resulted in Indian funds being directed more towards economic and public development rather than military projects.
It’s unclear if that is set to change, but Trump’s India comments will likely not be received well in Islamabad, Vipin Narang, a regional expert who teaches at MIT, predicts.
“Pakistan is incredibly paranoid about Indian activity in Afghanistan removing its political ‘strategic depth,’” he said. “So you ask India to do more, and Pakistan’s incentive is to amplify its destructive behavior in Afghanistan to deny India, and the U.S., that space. The ISI has been working groups in Afghanistan for 40 years. They can do a whole world of hurt there,” Narang added, referring to Pakistan‘s Inter-Services Intelligence.
“Anyone who thinks this shift in Pakistan strategy will be easy to implement, remember: Pakistan negotiates with a gun to its own head,” Narang said.
Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said that both India and Pakistan have interest in “low-level competition, a proxy war” with no intention of going beyond that, which is good news for the two nuclear-armed states but means neither is willing to give an inch at the moment.
An administration official acknowledged that persuading Pakistan to accept India’s role in Afghanistan will not be easy.
“Pakistan has legitimate concerns” surrounding an increased role by India there, the official said.
India has developed a lot of goodwill in Afghanistan for its presence there through development projects, the official said, and “the U.S. appreciates that; … we don’t see that as a direct threat to Pakistan.”
“To be clear, the U.S. recognizes that Pakistan has legitimate security issues in the future of Afghanistan,” the official continued. “So when we’re talking about India continuing its economic assistance to Afghanistan, we are by are no means discounting Pakistan’s interests in the region.”
Hunt remains skeptical that public outreach to India will get Pakistan to change how it does business.
“Pakistan’s fundamental calculus has not changed. Their feelings of anxiety about India have not changed. Their interest in having a stronger hand in Afghanistan than India has not changed,” she said. “So I’m not sure why we think scolding Pakistan in public and then offering their greatest adversary more access to Pakistan’s backyard is going to change behavior in some way.”
If the U.S. is looking more towards India, Pakistan may counter by looking to move more closely with China, the analyst noted.
Pakistan has for years tried to counterbalance its alliance with the U.S. with one from China, including with its military relationships. Industrially, Pakistan has agreed to work with China to produce a new submarine fleet as well as working together to develop what in Pakistan is known as the JF-17 jet fighter. In addition, China has developed the Azmat-class missile boat for Pakistan, which will carry Chinese-built weapons.
And in June, a Pentagon report concluded that China will seek to develop a military base in Pakistan, which would represent only the second People’s Liberation Army military facility outside of China.
Islamabad is not going to run away from the U.S. entirely, of course. But as a signal to Washington that it has options, a public courting of Beijing would seem predictable, analysts agreed.
“The Indians don’t want to provoke the Pakistanis, and I don’t think the Chinese want to provoke the Indians. But the Pakistanis are very good at seeing who is up and who is down and recognizing when they are in and out of favor with the United States,” Hunt noted. “If they took away [from the speech] that they’re about to be out of favor again, at least on some levels of this many layered bilateral relationship, then again I think they relook their portfolio investments and start to shift some activities over to China.”
That could take the form of greater economic aid, closer military-industrial ties or increased military relationships.
Certainly, there is no love lost between India and China. Military personnel from the two nations recently faced off in Dolam, part of the Doklam region that is disputed territory claimed by both Bhutan and China. Tensions were raised after China attempted to build a road through the area and India intervened on behalf of Bhutan.
The standoff apparently ended Aug. 28 with both sides issuing deescalatory statements, a good reminder that anything that happens in South Asia will have repercussions for the two regional powers, said Narang.
However, Narang doubts the Doklam situation will most likely increase China’s interest in Pakistan, noting the incentive to do so already exists.
And at least one Chinese official isn’t being subtle about his messaging. Lijian Zhao, the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, tweeted a video message on Aug. 24 about the positive military-to-military relations between the two nations.
“A friend in need is a friend indeed,” the tweet noted.
But, said Cronin, any shift by Pakistan towards China can always change in the future, adding, “Pakistan may come to regret the debt of having China so involved and try to balance back” given the strings attached.
Regardless of the short-term impact, the reality now is that you cannot have a regional strategy without it, including a plan for dealing with China’s influence, Friend said.
“We used to just talk about Pak-India-Afghan, and now I think we have to start talking about Pak-China-India-Afghan,” she said.
Tara Copp contributed to this story.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.