An India-Pak Deal Midwifed by China?

Top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi holds up a March 10 deal in Beijing with Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani and Saudi State Minister Musaad bin Muhammad al-Aiban.

For us in South Asia, Saudi-Iran normalization is of profound significance, especially since the region has been permanently scarred by the implacable rivalry between India and Pakistan

THE rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two Middle East powerhouses, brokered by China, is a momentous geopolitical event that has the ability to halt the increasing rivalry in a region riven by various crises.

The two countries announced the restoration of their ties a day after US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s much-hyped trip to the region came to end. Austin travelled to Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and Israel to reassure Arab allies against a perceived Iranian threat as well as to strengthen US standing and support in light of China and Russia’s increased interest in and outreach to the Gulf states.

The surprise Saudi-Iran detente, however, goes against the thrust of Austin’s visit, which was largely premised on a bitter rivalry between the two countries. And that China midwifed it is likely to make the US uneasy about the communist giant’s expanding influence in the region.

The fact that China mediated the deal is significant. It shows that China could play a significant role in fostering a Middle East more characterized by cooperation and trade than conflict and weapons sales, which have been the norm in the region under US leadership.

The agreement represents a strategic conundrum: China will be able to fill the security vulnerabilities in the region created by the absence of a US-based security architecture. China is reorienting to the East to fill the void left by Washington’s shift to the Indo-Pacific in its bid to contain China.

The deal has nuanced the geopolitics of the region reshaped in recent years by the Abraham Accord between the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. And now there has been a lingering talk of reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iran and Israel are the opposite poles of Middle Eastern geopolitics and for Riyadh to be friends with both will call for an acrobatic readjustment of its approach to the ties with the countries in the region.

There are many takeaways from the Saudi-Iran normalization: one of them, of course, is China’s growing clout in the region and the relative decline in the US influence. But one of the most instructive for us is that the longstanding bitter rivals decided to bury the hatchet at a time when they are fighting each other in several conflicts across the region, including the seven year old brutal war in Yemen that has claimed over 150,000 lives, besides many more due to famine and lack of healthcare facilities. Will rapprochement between the two countries pave the way to address their proxy wars across the gulf remains to be seen.

But for us in South Asia, the development is of profound significance, especially since the region has been permanently scarred by the implacable rivalry between India and Pakistan. And there is little hope that the two nations could ever come together to usher in genuine peace in the region and open up opportunities for cooperation, connectivity and economic progress. Could a Saudi-Iran type agreement be ever replicated in South Asia: a India-Pakistan deal mediated by China? Incidentally, unlike the Middle East, China is the neighbour of India and Pakistan, sharing border with both of them.

True, geopolitics of South Asia is very complex, and it has become more so with the rise of China as the global power, forcing the US pivot to Indo-Pacific.  As the situation stands, China is becoming more assertive globally. China’s rise as the global power and the expanding sphere of regional and global influence has made it a natural rival of India, an emerging economic powerhouse. Their interests and global outlooks have drastically diverged in recent years. China is busy building alternative alliances around the world, even in India’s neighbourhood and New Delhi is drawn towards the established western order headed by the US. This is a world that is still in the process of forming itself and there is no telling yet what its final shape will be.

But this doesn’t mean that the geopolitics of the Middle East is any less complex. Mutual antagonisms run also deep there. Much like Hindu-Muslim antipathy that underpins India-Pakistan conflict, a Shia-Sunni schism undergirds Saudi-Iran rivalry.  And, in a sense, both conflicts are structural and hence entrenched. But they can be managed and addressed, even though the best peace plans can also easily unravel and things go back to being worse than they were before.

This is not that there have not been efforts by the US to achieve conciliation between India and Pakistan but they have not been successful.  Besides, for the predominant period of the past 75 years, the US was an ally of Pakistan and antagonistic to India, then an ally of the USSR. Now the US is a close ally of India and shares largely a relationship of convenience with Pakistan. But it is clear that the US role as a mediator in South Asia has diminished over the years and it’s primary concern in the region is the containment of China. This is here that the India-Pakistan peace can work to the advantage of China. It can remove one of the major factors that has plagued the peace in the region and inhibited connectivity.

Could China try and replicate an India-Pakistan peace deal along lines of the Saudi-Iran agreement? Well, it has reportedly already tried but failed. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in October 2019, he was reported to have broached an India-Pakistan deal but India didn’t agree to it. Incidentally, the visit took place in the wake of the withdrawal of J&K’s special status in August 2019. Interestingly, before visiting India, Xi had hosted the then Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan. Ever since, things have gone further downhill, both with China and Pakistan. In April 2020, China staged incursions along five points on the Line of Actual Control and the two countries remain far from resolving the stand-off – albeit they have made some headway since.

That said, the world is a dynamic place. An enduring India-Pakistan peace remains key to unlocking the true potential of South Asia. And it will also benefit China. And to a lesser extent, it will be helpful to the US too. This makes the pursuit of India-Pakistan normalization an inviting prospect for both superpowers. More so, obviously for China. Much will depend on how China’s rise reshapes the world order.

  • Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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