Considering India’s growing hegemonic ambitions along with the regional countries having to ultimately bear the brunt of it, it is highly important to offset the hybrid cold war at play – all in order to maintain regional peace and stability.
The economic and strategic competition between China and the United States on the one hand, India-China and Pakistan-India on the other, has brought the entire South Asia on the verge of a hybrid cold war. This hybrid model combines psychological warfare, information operations1, fake news, sanctions regime and redeployment of military and strategic resources in the South China Sea. India’s continuous struggle with its internal strife and desire to recalibrate the balance of power in South Asia has also created multiple scenarios for potential conflicts. Ultimately, trade dispute2 between the U.S.-China, India-China border conflict and the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) issue between Pakistan-India may overshadow the regional peace and stability. The increasing partnership between Russia and China has also constrained India’s strategic posturing, and its relations with the U.S. and NATO members are being tested for a credible partnership.
India’s role with regard to the containment of China3 is enhanced by the U.S.’ granting them access to sensitive intelligence and thereby opening up several battlespaces including cyber warfare and modernizing India’s space and missile defence system. The other key aspect of the hybrid Cold War is coercive international diplomacy towards Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran, which further poses the risk of conflict both in the South China Sea4 and in the wider South Asian region. The “rising China” factor is also considered a serious challenge to the U.S.-led “West-based international economic and security order”, which in some ways is aimed at strengthening India’s regional and international role driven by resources and power transition into the Asian Century.
Why is India Fearful of China’s Economic Power?
The argument in service of the containment of China flows from the expansion of its strategic influence through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), corresponding with its growing economic and military might. The China-Russia collaboration in dealing with the U.S. at numerous international organizations has also created remarkable diplomatic difficulties for the U.S. and India. For the U.S. and NATO member states, preserving the post-World War II international security order is crucial and being perceived as a key to dominate the South Asian region. For India, the paradigm shift in the Chinese approach to defend its entities in the South China Sea and beyond has already been transforming a “new cold war” into a “hybrid cold war”. The procurement of enormous military hardware including the Rafale fighter jets by India is being perceived as a serious threat to China and Pakistan and hence, a caution of a low-medium intensity conflict exists. China has now openly warned the U.S. not to interfere in the South China Sea, and that India should not become an active part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) – an emerging military alliance led by the U.S., Australia, India and Japan.
The U.S. and its allies’ “China containment” policy alludes to a conflict that has implications for the rights of coastal states, international law and conflict risks in engaging India and Pakistan. India’s China centric policy has also become a diplomatic obligation for the U.S. because a balanced U.S. foreign policy in South Asia appears to be the only way out of the current U.S.-China conundrum. Instead of working with Pakistan and periphery states (e.g., Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), India has preferred intervening in the internal affairs of periphery countries and seeking to remotely control the regional order. The character of potential conflict in South Asia therefore is linked with preventing China’s economic rise and keeping the periphery countries instable and maintaining social chaos, a glaring aspect of prevailing hybrid Cold War.
Ostensibly, the Taliban’s control over Afghanistan has significantly upset the Indian strategic plans. Vikas Panday, in an article for BBC titled Afghanistan: The Taliban’s Victory will Test India said, “The Taliban’s rout is likely to cause a significant shift in the geopolitics of South Asia, and it could be particularly testing for India, given the country's historically tense relations and border disputes with Pakistan and China – both are expected to play a crucial role in Afghanistan's future”… This potential geopolitical realignment could "change things upside down", said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, India's former Ambassador to Afghanistan and Syria. Afghanistan was a loose alliance between the democratic government in Kabul, the West, and other democracies like India. But the world is likely to see Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China coming together to play the next chapter”.5
Assessment and Implications
The prevailing rhetorical media and diplomatic environment between Pakistan and India has almost made it impossible to craft a new strategy that supports international peace efforts in Afghanistan. It is assessed that India is pursuing offensive intelligence operations and sponsoring syndicates of terrorist organizations inside Afghanistan, and there seems to be an implicit appetite among the other stakeholders to complement such operational designs.
Consequently, there seems to be no near-term prospect of the resolution of Kashmir dispute and in practice, India is idealising a replay of a civil war in Afghanistan. This scenario is realistic because it favors India in at least two main sectors: a) If instability grips Afghanistan and a flux of refugees and border related security issues keep Pakistan engaged on the Western border, thereby constrains on Pakistan’s military would continue to undermine its focus on the Eastern side, and; b) If China and Russia also fail to evolve a joint strategy to partner up and support stabilizing Afghanistan, it would directly place India by creating strategic depth in the wider region.
In practice, Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran can play a leading role to garner support to avert any future conflict that might hamper peace in Afghanistan. By all accounts, hosting the 17th OIC Emergency Conference (December 18-21, 2021) on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, Pakistan has remarkably led the path to create a trust fund under the auspices of the Islamic Development Fund, and thus laid the foundation of a more structured and integrated effort to resolve the emerging challenges in the region.
There is also a growing appetite to hold and sustain low-intensity conflicts by India, thus the status of potential local/regional conflicts can serve as catalysts when and if the U.S. and its western allies embark on raising strategic stakes in South Asia. This fact should not preclude China-India, Pakistan-India and U.S.-China to make cooperative arrangements and provide diplomatic mechanisms to establish regional peace and stability in South Asia. The joint ventures, and conducting joint scientific research to protect the environment and apportioning of financial resources, would become countermeasures against India’s offensive plans to sustain its intervention in periphery countries, and delay a peaceful resolution of the IIOJK issue.
The reality, however, is that the U.S. is determined to undermine China’s economic influence in the form of BRI, although many Asian countries are convinced and making necessary compromises with regard to China’s legitimate international role.
The joint ventures, and conducting joint scientific research to protect the environment and apportioning of financial resources, would become countermeasures against India’s offensive plans to sustain its intervention in periphery countries, and delay a peaceful resolution of the IIOJK issue.
Why Does South Asia Matter to the U.S. and the West?
An analysis of a hybrid Cold War should start with the description of potential status of the conflict in the realm of regional security between China-India, Pakistan-India and the U.S. and China. There is no doubt that India is exerting security pressure on China and Pakistan by employing fake news, offensive intelligence operations, information warfare, propaganda, and politicizing the FATF’s outcome. India in particular has based its future strategy on a “zero-sum” approach toward IIOJK and promoting Western strategic depth against China. The other aspect that deserves serious attention is India’s infiltration into the bureaucratic sphere, multinational companies, political and policy making quarters. The ensuing analysis reveals that one of the main purposes of India’s actions is to spread false information against Pakistan and China. This pressure tactic has serious consequences in terms of Pakistan-U.S. and China-U.S. relations. A potential outbreak of a low-medium armed conflict is a crucial part of India’s coercive diplomacy and blackmail strategy.
In general, South Asia’s hybrid Cold War may engulf the U.S. and Western nations, especially including their real political and military resources. The potential conflicts entail three risk scenarios: a subliminal conflict, limited and low-medium warfare, and unlimited warfare – the use of nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out due to the significant disparity present between different armies (i.e., larger vs. smaller armies and comprehensive modernization of the weapon systems).
China’s economic and security assertiveness in the South and beyond feeds the U.S. and its allies’ perceptions of a revisionist challenge to what it considers as the “economic security-based international strategic order”. China’s BRI is clearly objected and opposed by the U.S. and the West in general. The U.S. and West should refrain from creating further economic and military tensions and must comply with the doctrine of reducing friction through dialogue, agreements and a non-interventionist policy regime to prevent and clarify red lines that may cause a wider conflict.
Afghanistan Post-withdrawal and Peace Conundrum
In the backdrop of the December 2021 OIC conference on Afghanistan in Islamabad, it is clearly described that the post-U.S. and NATO Afghanistan is rather facing significant humanitarian challenges6. Multiple risks and opportunities exist while the new Taliban government is grappling with economic, security and humanitarian crises. It is assessed that regional countries, especially Russia, China and Pakistan, are helping to stabilize Afghanistan. One of the main challenges is the continued attacks by the ISIS-K7 on the innocent civilians, together with the serious humanitarian crisis, refugee issue, and lack of international support to Taliban government. As a result, two interconnected instability factors are causing further uncertainty: a) The West, especially the U.S., is not releasing the frozen funds of the Afghan government, and demonstrating less real interest in addressing the economic and humanitarian issues that the Afghan people are facing; b) There is a need for a collective mechanism of major states to recognize the Taliban and engage them to address the issue of including other ethnic political groups in major government slots. Moreover, a joint mechanism of cooperation between Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran and other regional countries would add value and credibility to resolve the short and long-term challenges that the Afghan people have been facing.
There is no doubt that India is exerting security pressure on China and Pakistan by employing fake news, offensive intelligence operations, information warfare, propaganda, and politicizing the FATF’s outcome.
One of the main purposes of India’s actions is to spread false information against Pakistan and China. This pressure tactic has serious consequences in terms of Pakistan-U.S. and China-U.S. relations. A potential outbreak of a low-medium armed conflict is a crucial part of India’s coercive diplomacy and blackmail strategy.
The past decade has transformed the Asian region significantly into one of the most volatile parts of the world where local/regional conflicts could potentially engage major powers (especially the U.S. and its Western allies), and the risk of a major war is real. The fact is that political confrontation involving military measures is a crucial part of hybrid Cold War. Current confrontation involves specific elements of the Cold War such as an economic and ideological clash (e.g., the RSS, right-wing white supremacists and opposition to China’s BRI).
It is also assessed that India’s desire to “play a double hand”8 both with the Eastern and Western blocs has changed the political psyche of periphery countries including Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and these nations see an engagement with China as prevaricate against Indian dominance. “During the Cold War in the 20th century, the military factors (nuclear in particular) were dominating the non-military factors, however, the latter (especially the economy) were decisive in determining the outcome of the conflict. In the case of contemporary political confrontations, the relation between military and non-military factors is much more balanced and none of them is decisive. These circumstances are extremely varied, therefore, the confrontation can be perceived as a hybrid conflict. Consequently, the term ‘hybrid cold war’ seems to be appropriate to describe the current state of international security affairs”.9
It is necessary to undertake comprehensive counter diplomatic and economic measures to neutralize the threat of a hybrid cold war, and advocate against India’s false assumptions of dominating South Asia. The most important elements concerning India relates to all outstanding issues including the IIOJK, and is based on three important elements: dialogue regarding the current state of affairs in the IIOJK; mantra of surgical attacks and misadventures; threats of military operations other than war; as well as nuclear deterrence and defence against potential ground aggression.
Pakistan and China, on the other hand, are frontline emerging states against and the historical military alliances, therefore, they are more vulnerable to India and its allies’ aggressive (particularly low-threshold warfare) and diplomatic coercion. The victor and defeat in this confrontation would mean losing peace and consequently an end of the current balance of power in South Asia which would have a significant impact on the global economy and security. To sustain durable peace, it is necessary to introduce two elements of cooperation and joint mechanism: initiation of immediate dialogue between Pakistan-India and China-India; and non-deployment of any high and ready military forces by India and NATO in the South China Sea and in close proximity of the border with Pakistan.
It is important to develop capabilities against India’s political influences and infiltration into the U.S. and Western bureaucratic and political quarters, and mitigate the risks posed by its current political and military pressure, particularly information warfare, propaganda and cyber operations. Therefore, it is crucial to create foolproof information security systems including cyber security systems.
The defence against low-threshold warfare should be guaranteed by the U.S. and NATO member countries within their international peace and security framework. This matter is extremely important due to the risks related to difficulties with consensus decisionmaking process under the RSS-BJP government of India.
From Pakistan’s perspective, the status of a potential conflict with India is based on the non-resolution of IIOJK issue and India’s desire to push the nuclear threshold. Therefore, the most efficient response to India’s threat is to strengthen our credibility of nuclear strike capabilities as an answer to India’s advantage in comprehensive modernization10 of its military, navy and army and of course nuclear weapons. India must be aware that crossing the threshold of nuclear conflict with Pakistan and China will entail the threat of nuclear war in South Asia on all levels, not only the tactical one.
The writer is the Director General of Pakistan House (www.pakistanhouse.net), an Islamabad-based think tank of International Affairs. He is also an International Security Program Fellow at New America, a Washington-based think tank, and a visiting faculty at NATO Centre for Excellence – Defence against WMD Terrorism, Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey.
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