Playing for Keeps in South Asia

The American diplomatic jujitsu that has been turned on by the administration of President Barack Obama both inside and outside Pakistan to minimize damages stemming from the reporting diplomatic cables in WikiLeaks is both disingenuous and dismal. The Pakistani public–or at least a great portion of it–knew that for a long time.

The spin masters of America's "conspiracies" inside Pakistan are having a field day. Now, even the most pro-American Pakistani officials know that the long-standing game of "using and abandoning" Pakistan is still continuing with a vengeance. That was so eloquently recorded by the former US ambassador to Pakistan, Dennis Kux. All one has to do is to recall the entire title of his book: The United States and Pakistan; Disenchanted Allies.

But why continue this diplomatic charade? Because that is the game Washington has decided to play with Pakistan for the past several decades. Now it has emerged as the subset of America's larger game in Southern Asia (China, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan). Pakistan, in turn, is playing a similar game: it pretends to believe that Washington is sincere, and then pretends to cooperate with it. That may be how one can appropriately explain the strategy of America's ostensibly losing war in Afghanistan.

Pakistan knows that the US has a larger (if not a grand) strategy toward Southern Asia. In that strategy, Pakistan is very important, but only as a supporting actor to assist an American win in Afghanistan. The real focus of the American strategy is India and how to persuade India to contain China. India was worried that the US under President Obama would not maintain its high interest in containing China. Now it has little doubt that it does.

However, India warily watches the ups-and-downs of Sino-American strategic maneuvers. China did not have any doubts about America's high interests in containing it in and around South Asia (which is a smaller portion the larger Southern Asia).

In this sense, South Asia is becoming a place of American engagement in a manner quite similar to its modus operandi during the 1960s in East Asia. Then the focus was on winning the war in South Vietnam. Now the focus is on winning it in South Asia. Then the driving force was the fictitious "domino theory," which stated that if South Vietnam were to fall, the rest of the dominoes of Southeast Asia – Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and other countries – would also follow. Now the focus is on containing a wannabe superpower – China – which is more than just a wannabe superpower. Its emergence as a superpower appears to be a mounting reality. China's economic rise is awesome and ostensibly inexorable; only its military rise is slow but still steady.

The best counter-strategy for the South Asian countries to evolve is to arrive at a grand rapprochement that also involves some sort of modus Vivendi on Kashmir and then transform themselves into a South Asian economic powerhouse. India already has the knowhow and enormous economic resources. Pakistan has brainpower, but only if it is not wasted by blowing each other up in the name of sustaining an imaginary religious "purity."

However, even if, by some fluke, India and Pakistan were to agree to build such a powerhouse, their chances of success are very much contingent on China's decision to continue to play its own "Pakistan card" in order to keep India on its toes, as well as to undermine all American endeavors in Southern Asia to contain China.

Where China has a tremendous advantage is that it can offer Pakistan what it wants most: military wherewithal in its uphill struggle to compete with India. Even under the aforementioned "economic powerhouse" scenario, Pakistan is not about to stop building its military arm, since building its own military power is so significant to India, which is involved in an intense strategic competition with China.

This strategic reality tilts the balance of advantage toward the US, but only at the expense of continuing to make Southern Asia "the most dangerous place in the world" for the following reasons: (1) The US has decided that it would continue to assist India to emerge as a competitor of China through selling high-tech military weapons as well as cutting-edge civilian dual use technology. (2) China is equally resolute not to lose in this strategic competition, and it has decided to undermine India's advantage. Pakistan remains a very important player in that Chinese calculation. (3) Pakistan has decided to take full advantage of its sustained significaxnce for China, while continuing to persuade Washington to create a US-Pakistan strategic partnership. Pakistan's success in the achievement of this objective is minimal for now. However, if it were to play its cards right toward Afghanistan–which, shorn of its diplomatic gobbledygook, means full cooperation in defeating the Taliban of that country – and in its handling of its own Islamist forces – which means eradicating or pacifying most, if not all, of them, Washington might be swayed to offer a condensed version of a strategic partnership. Such a potential would still make Southern Asia a dangerous place because then it will be India's turn to panic.

During the Cold War years, South Asia was not a major focus of America's attention. It had given up India as a hopeless Soviet lackey, while Pakistan eagerly (and mostly unsuccessfully) endeavored to become America's Israel in South Asia. Now Southern Asia has emerged as a great playground for America and China. As China's most proximate region, it appears determined not to allow America strategic advantage in that region. At the same time, the lone superpower is equally determined not to lose against China in its new playground.