The importance of the India-Pakistan border has remained low for the United States for many decades, but experts say it is gaining new strategic meaning as part of its emerging Indo-Pacific strategy, which redefines U.S. resources and partnerships in the region.
Kashish Parpiani, a Mumbai-based expert with the Observer Research Foundation, highlights that the historically conflicted boundary between India and Pakistan also forms the territorial demarcation line between the U.S. military’s central command and its Indo-Pacific command and thus places India and Pakistan into two separate strategic military zones.
Traditionally, India wasn’t allowed to participate in central command even though it had concerns that transverse its western border in the region, but now that has changed.
After its last 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, the United States decided that India would get increased access to U.S. Central Command. The 2+2 Ministerial dialogue is the highest-level institutional mechanism between the two countries that allows for a periodic review of the security, defense, and strategic partnership.
Richard M. Rossow, Senior Adviser of Indian Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said in a commentary published on Dec. 20 that this decision will provide “more balance to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ partnership.”
Parpiani said providing India more access to U.S. Central Command will mean giving India “more than a keyhole view into the U.S. military developments in the region—with respect to its allied relations with Pakistan.”
“It’s a matter of [the] U.S. agreeing to more transparency on its relations with Pakistan. [It] can be seen as a gesture of providing an assurance to India.”
Why the Spotlight?
India shares 2,065 miles of international land border with Pakistan, according to the Indian government (pdf). This includes 450 miles of disputed area known as the Line of Control, a de facto border that emerged as a ceasefire line between the two countries after their first war of 1947-48, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. It is one of the most militarized borders in the world.
India and Pakistan have fought four wars on this border and the region continues to be an active ground for multiple non-state actors that operate against the Indian state from Pakistan’s soil. Many of them like the Hizbul Mujahideen, Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami, Harakat ul-Mujahidin, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Lashkar-e Tayyiba are identified by the United States as Foreign Terrorists Organizations, according to a CIA list.
Meanwhile, the border also has a substantial Chinese presence in the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region and China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) passes through it, a major cause of worry for both India and United States, according to Alice Wells, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia at the U.S. Department of State.
Ayjaz Wani, another Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, said China has invested in many projects near the Line of Control in the disputed territory held by Pakistan and that India perceives China’s presence in the disputed territory as “direct violation of India’s sovereignty over the region.”
A Council for Foreign Relations (CFR) report shares Wani’s concerns and mentions that under President Donald Trump, Washington has raised an alarm over the BRI.
“Meanwhile, the United States shares the concern of some in Asia that the BRI could be a Trojan horse for China-led regional development and military expansion,” said the CFR report by Andrew Chatzky and James McBride.
Chatzky and McBride also mention that India believes the BRI is a plan to dominate Asia and feels “unsettled” with China’s decadeslong embrace of Pakistan.
“The United States views India as a counterweight to a China-dominated Asia and has sought to knit together its strategic relationships in the region via the 2017 Indo-Pacific Strategy,” said the report released on Jan. 28.
Parpiani said that as a major conflict theatre of global strategic relevance, the border is important for the United States for the same reason it is for its global adversary, China.
He believes that the Indo-Pacific strategy makes the India-Pakistan border extremely important because without resolving the historical disputed border issues between the two South Asian rivals, a holistic view of the Indo-Pacific strategy is not possible. Parpiani’s holistic approach would address all of India’s concerns and actually enable it to play the role it should as a strategic partner of the United States.
Addressing India’s Concerns
India’s concerns on its border with Pakistan arise out of the tense security situation in the region, and Parpiani said if the United States wants to cultivate India as a strong strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific, it’ll have to address India’s concerns with Pakistan on its western border.
“India’s eastward commitment to the American calculus on the Indo-Pacific region stands impeded by India’s continued focus on its western frontier. Pakistan’s use of subversive statecraft to exacerbate the conflict in and over Kashmir, is the central reason,” said Parpiani.
Kanishkan Sathasivam, a Massachusetts-based geopolitical analyst calls India’s threat perception vis-à-vis Pakistan as “misplaced” and believes that it distracts India from playing the role it ought to play as a U.S. ally.
“During the Cold War, the U.S. believed India should have been allied with the West against the Soviet Union, but [it] refused to do so because of its hostility with Pakistan which was an ally of the West.
“Now, in the post-Cold War era, again the U.S. believes India should stand with the U.S. and its other Asian allies against China, and treat China as India’s primary source of threat, but India continues to be ‘obsessed’ with Pakistan over any and all other issues,” he said.
Parpiani highlights this as a gap that the United States recently started to address by cultivating India as a better strategic partner as part of a holistic Indo-pacific strategy.
US vs China in the Region
Countering China is fundamental to the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy, and according to Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, a Washington-based geopolitical analyst, the significance of the India-Pakistan border should be analyzed in this context.
“Any area where China is present or has some type of interests is meticulously analyzed in Washington in the context of how it affects U.S. interests, including the security of its partners and allies,” said Alejandro.
“Obviously, Washington ideally wants there to be peace between New Delhi and Islamabad for a variety of reasons, including the fear of two nuclear powers having a war, and dealing with insurgency and instability out of Afghanistan. When it comes to China, Islamabad is a big recipient of Chinese investment,” he added.
Parpiani talked about the possibility of the India-Pakistan border as a strategic outpost between two like-minded partners. He said although the United States and China are mostly sea adversaries and don’t share any land-based confrontation, the India-Pakistan border could be an ideal launchpad for U.S. forces, even though they have something nearby in Afghanistan.
He said the India-Pakistan border is important for China strategically and in the same context it should be important for the United States.
“For China, the India-Pakistan border is significant towards its connectivity projects (like the China Pakistan Economic Corridor) and mostly to keep India’s security calculus pegged on its North-western frontier—away from India gradually assuming an activist role projecting South and definitely Eastward,” said Parpiani.
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is China’s largest BRI project globally, with over $60 billion committed to projects in Pakistan, according to Wells.
“The Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, Yao Jing, has repeated the off-used characterization of CPEC as a game-changer for Pakistan. In fact, the Ambassador has said that China wants to see its relationship with Pakistan serve as an example for its relations with other states,” Wells said while talking at Wilson Center in Washington on Nov. 21 last year.
Sathasivam said China wants to keep the disputed border between India and Pakistan alive because it gives leverage to China against India in multiple ways.
“One, given Pakistan’s alliance with China, if India wants Chinese help in containing any Pakistani ambitions in Kashmir, then China will expect that India keep out of any U.S. alliance as a quid pro quo (along with India’s acceptance of any and all Chinese actions in Tibet),” he said.
Sathasivam explained that in spite of all the concerns about China, India has to try to maintain good relations with it because any future conflict with Pakistan would not want to be faced simultaneously with China.
“And three, China gets to bypass India, and not have need for any Indian cooperation with respect to the BRI because Pakistan-controlled Kashmir creates a direct border between China and Pakistan,” said Sathasivam, explaining how the context has emerged for India and the United States as strategic partners.