The US and China are engaged in an intriguing power struggle in Asia and the Indian & Pacific Ocean Regions (I&POR). It is generating an enormously complex geostrategic paradox which is drawing regional and non-regional countries into the deadly fray as well.

This is looking increasingly like a Mexican standoff in the making. According to Wikipedia, “A Mexican standoff is a confrontation in which no strategy exists that allows any party to achieve victory. Any party initiating aggression might trigger its own demise. At the same time, the parties are unable to extricate themselves from the situation without suffering a loss. As a result, all participants need to maintain the strategic tension which remains unresolved until some outside event makes it possible to resolve it.” Viewed in the geopolitical, geostrategic and geo-economic contexts it brings into stark relief the dangers inherent in this ominous US-China power struggle.

The US is extremely wary of China’s meteoric rise and is moving decisively across all dimensions to effectively circumscribe it.

At the geopolitical level, the US is upping the ante and creating a multifarious coalition against it. It has already raised the obviously anti-China Quadrilateral Alliance with India, Australia and Japan. The EU and NATO are in its corner, as usual. India is being propped up as a counterweight to China, implying thereby that both are “equal regional powers” and essentially limited to Asia! The US could also include some South East Asian states in its coalition, when needed. At the geo-economic level apart from the trade war, the US has threatened to uproot the global supply chain from China, block all transfers of technology to it and dynamically oppose the BRI. The US Navy dominates all Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) in the I&POR, in particular the Malacca Straits, and will thus control and dominate all East-West trade throughout the I&POR - much to China’s detriment. At the geostrategic level the US has been projecting immense power in the South China Sea/POR through Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS). It has challenged China’s military, its territorial limits in the South China Sea and objected to its occupation of the Paracel and Spratly Islands and others that it has created. It intends to dominate the I&POR!

However, this emerging Mexican standoff has triggered intriguing threat perceptions and strategic orientations throughout the region at large!

The US sees China as the main threat and would prefer to engage it in, at least a two-front confrontation, if and when required. It perceives China as an emerging economic, military, political, technological and ideological power that seeks a matching global reach (including space) and encroaches upon its sphere of influence. It feels that its singular position as the sole superpower of the world is seriously threatened. It feels compelled to isolate, contain and neutralise this threat before it becomes unmanageable. Presently, the US has struck a very aggressive posture in the Pacific Ocean Region (POR).

China sees the emerging Indo-US alliance as a subset of the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy and will naturally assume any threatening Indian moves along/astride the Line of Actual Control (LAC) or in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to be a part of it. It perceives the US to be the major and India the minor threat. In a possible two-front war, the POR would be the main theatre of war while the Southern/trans-Himalayan region could be the secondary one. India could be tasked to ostensibly fix Chinese forces in the Southern/trans Himalayan Theatre and dissipate its overall military effort. China needs to pre-empt the actualisation of such a hypothesis and therefore must prevent, or failing which, neutralise it.

In the given environment, China’s strategic orientation has been remarkable. By moving out into the South China Sea, it has established a strong perimeter of security which enhances its strategic depth as well and improves its strategic options in the POR. Similarly, in Ladakh on the Southern/trans-Himalayan frontier, it has moved to occupy positions on its side of the LAC, forming yet another critical perimeter of security. It has decisively blocked off Indian access to Aksai Chin and ostensibly to Siachen and the distant Karakoram Highway-CPEC. This will also secure the strategically important lateral, the Xinjiang-Tibet Autonomous Region Road.

Has China somewhat obviated a two-front war scenario by preemptively pushing the Indians into a distinctly disadvantageous position in the critical Ladakh Sector?

India, in turn, would be heedful of being caught in a two-front war too. China is the prime threat for it while Pakistan is the secondary one. It knows that in a hypothetical war with China along the LAC, it will not be allowed to shift forces from Kashmir or anywhere else along its western borders with Pakistan. Its military will remain pegged, deployed, poised and irretrievably fixed against Pakistan. Like 1962, it will want the US to neutralise all possible threats from Pakistan. In the worst-case scenario for it, nuclear Pakistan might become impervious to external pressures from across the Arabian Sea, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and might contribute to an insurmountable challenge for the Indians.

In such a complex strategic environment Pakistan will consider India to be its key threat. It is bound to come under increasing pressure from the US and its European and Arab allies to remain neutral, not pose any threat to India and definitely desist/refrain from taking advantage of any fleeting opportunities that may and will arise in Indian Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (IOJ&K). Pakistan will be threatened with a destabilisation of its inner front through terrorist activities from Afghanistan and Iran as well as through crippling economic, trade and military sanctions, denial of funds through the IFIs and military assaults (through the air, as a secondary threat) too. Pakistan must remember its history and boldly stay on the right side of the future.

The emerging US-China power struggle thus portends to be a breath-taking battle of nerves, coercive diplomacy, blatant intimidation and inducements, nuclear brinkmanship and a ruthless exposition of realpolitik in the pursuit of violently clashing national interests.

Only the steel-nerved will survive this vicious Mexican standoff.

The writer is a retired Brigadier from the Pakistan Army.

E-Mail: im.k846@gmail.com

He tweets

@K846IM.

The US is extremely wary of China’s meteoric rise and is moving decisively across all dimensions to effectively circumscribe it.