Balancing great power competition with strategic stability – The troubling case of South Asia

Against the backdrop of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and the impending US elections, the last few weeks have seen both the US and China exchange a growing level of allegations against one another. These include President Trump’s repeated allusions to the Coronavirus as the ‘Chinese Virus’ as well as the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s own claims of the virus having originated in the US. This blame game over the origins of the ongoing global pandemic belies a serious lack of cooperation between these two global powers that would otherwise only benefit the world at large. However, what’s more dangerous is the realization that these accusations are essentially part of a worsening trend that has seen this great power rivalry extend to additional spheres with little to any indications of receding. In effect, reverberating through some of the world’s most divisive geo-political fault-lines such as the fragile strategic balance that is already under threat in South Asia.

This is evident in the latest back and forth between the two powers where recent US media reports have hinted at China conducting secret nuclear weapons tests in contravention of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), as well as its own moratorium on nuclear testing. Citing an upcoming report from the US State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC), these allegations were first published in the Wall Street Journal followed by an unequivocal rebuttal from the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The allegations being that China; due to increased activity at its Lop Nur test site, as well as its alleged attempts at interfering with the monitoring activities of international agencies, may be carrying out low-yield nuclear weapons tests as part of its attempts at expanding its strategic weapons arsenal.

Whereas the official AVC report does not amount to a direct accusation on its own, the very fact that it raises such allusions against the backdrop of the growing strategic mistrust between both countries points towards the addition of a very public and dangerous dimension to the US-China rivalry. This holds all the more importance considering that the US, since releasing its last Nuclear Posture Review (NPR 2018) as well as its official doctrine on Nuclear Operations last year, has itself emphasized the importance of developing and incorporating low-yield nuclear weapons in restricted battlefields and/or theaters of operations. The recent deployment of the US’s new W76-2 SLBM for instance, stands as a highly pertinent case in point. As such, the US has itself increasingly emphasized the suitability and usability of such tactical nuclear weapons in smaller regional conflicts which it has increasingly come to consider as manageable and even winnable.

Furthermore, considering how the NPR 2018 already communicated the US’s unequivocal refusal to ratify the CTBT, such accusations against China – and even against Russia last year –  are indicative rather of the US’s own desire to withdraw from the CTBT. This for instance has been evident in the growing criticism being levelled against the CTBT by influential Republican senators such as Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio.  Hence, coupled with the US’s growing emphasis on nuclear war-fighting, as well as its much vaunted modernization of its nuclear weapons systems under President Trump, these developments represent a far cry from President Obama’s decade old vision of a world without nuclear weapons built on restraint and gradual disarmament.

However, the fact remains that the US in so candidly outlining its growing strategic rivalry with China (and Russia) risks setting certain precedents which pose far serious and more immediate risks for the world at large. These risks include upending the precarious strategic balance between nuclear armed India and Pakistan, both of which have yet to sign the CTBT, let alone ratify it. This holds all the more importance considering that both India and Pakistan, on top of their own decades’ old animosity, have become increasingly embroiled in this great power rivalry.

For instance, the US and China’s respective and highly publicized cooperation with India and Pakistan – particularly following the US-India and Pak-China Nuclear deals – are indicative of the strong politico-economic and strategic ties which both these powers have individually cultivated with the two South Asian rivals. Be it the primacy awarded to Pakistan in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the form of CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), or the key role being played by India in containing China as part of the US led Quadrilateral Framework (Quad); both instances represent some of the most recent iterations of how this great power rivalry has unfolded in this particular region over the last decade.

However, considering that both India and Pakistan have themselves just nearly avoided a dangerous escalation following the Balakot/Rajauri incidents from last year, extreme care is required from both the US and China to not let their own rivalry feed into the already fragile situation in South Asia. A region whose escalation dynamics and strategic balance is already closely modeled along the precedents set by the world’s great power rivalries. In fact, considering the influence which the US and China have now come to increasingly exert over India and Pakistan respectively, both powers have instead an opportunity to find some common ground over incentivizing greater strategic stability within this particularly volatile region. Especially concerning the looming specter of nuclear war, there exists a rare opportunity for both the US and China to work towards leading and enacting more stringent arms control mechanisms instead of repeating some of the most dangerous and destabilizing trends from the height of the last century’s Cold War.

Considering that the global economy is still in the process of recovering from the last 18 month’s US-China trade war, and with major alliances being reshaped by the intensified maritime competition between both their navies (especially around the Indo and Asia-Pacific regions); the fact that the US-China rivalry continues to permeate through to all facets of International Relations presents serious risks for international peace and stability. Especially in a time where a black swan event like the COVID-19 pandemic is already forcing governments to radically re-prioritize their domestic and external policies, both the US and China have a rare chance of working together instead of opening up new fronts in their all-encompassing rivalry. Be it over greater strategic arms control, or more concerted efforts at helping eradicate an unprecedented global pandemic, leaders on both sides owe it to the world to offer at least some semblance of a vision where both powers can work together towards a greater good.

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M Waqas Jan

M Waqas Jan is a Research Associate and Program Coordinator for the China Study & Information Centre (CS & IC) at the Strategic Vision Institute, a non-partisan think tank based out of Islamabad.

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