How the US, China, India, Pakistan and Russia are reshaping South Asia

South Asia has emerged as the convergence point of American, Chinese, and Russian interests in the run-up to the US’ military withdrawal from Afghanistan by August 31st, which makes this region the most geo-strategically significant in the world right now. Those three Great Powers are actively working to shape the situation there in partnership with its two most influential stakeholders, India and Pakistan. The many interactions between the members of this “Quintet” in South Asia will greatly affect the future of the supercontinent and therefore the ong-oing New Cold War between the American and Chinese superpowers considering the region’s significance. The present analysis aims to simplify these complex dynamics for the benefit of the average observer and thus help everyone better understand the importance of what’s happening right now.

The state of affairs is rapidly changing but it’s still possible to identify a few top trends. These are the transition from geopolitics to geo-economics; America’s & Russia’s efforts to balance between India & Pakistan; and America’s, China’s, and Russia’s cautious welcoming of the Taliban into the international community. The most recent developments of relevance are February’s agreement to build a Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway; Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s regional sojourn in early April; mid-July’s Tashkent conference about Central Asia-South Asia connectivity; the US’ “New Quad” with the PAKAFUZ states; US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to India; the Taliban’s latest travels to China; and Pakistani National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf’s and Director-General ISI Lt. General Faiz Hameed’s trip to the US.

In the order that they were mentioned, the top trends’ significance is that: the Great Powers are focusing on friendly geo-economic competition in the Eurasian Heartland; which necessitates America & Russia working more closely with India & Pakistan in this pivotal region; as facilitated by those first two’s and China’s pragmatic relations with the Taliban. With respect to the developments of relevance, they’re significant because: PAKAFUZ is the vehicle for bringing this about; Russia successfully restored balance to its South Asian strategy this spring; everyone except India tacitly supports PAKAFUZ; the US’ “New Quad” shows the seriousness of its planned geo-economic engagement; the US wants to allay India’s concerns about the aforementioned; the Taliban will welcome more Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) investments; and Pakistan wants to strengthen its ties with the US.

The only realistic spoiler in this scenario is India because: it hitherto thus far refuses to enter into public contact with the Taliban; which in turn excludes it from the Extended Troika format of America, China, Pakistan, and Russia in Afghanistan which requires all participants to have ties with both warring parties; and increases the risk that New Delhi might extend more military support to Kabul to perpetuate its proxy war against the Taliban; so as to indefinitely delay the planned post-war implementation of the PAKAFUZ project which serves as the most tangible example of convergence between America, China, Pakistan, and Russia. The ideal solution is for India to be encouraged by its American and Russian allies to publicly talk to the Taliban so that New Delhi can then participate in the Extended Troika and consequently defend and expand its relevant economic interests.

The path to the implementation of that proposal is in progress but its ultimate outcome is still uncertain because: India feels very uncomfortable with its historical Russian ally recently getting so close to the Taliban; seriously distrusts its new American ally’s strategic intentions with the “New Quad” considering Pakistan’s key role in it; and expects to provoke a domestic political scandal if its incumbent Hindu nationalist government enters into public talks with the same Taliban that the BJP condemned as terrorists for years. These perceptions are responsible for India’s regional strategy having yet to fully evolve from geopolitics to geo-economics like America’s, China’s, Pakistan‘s, and Russia‘s have, which makes it an unpredictable outlier among this Quintet’s members since the advancement of its geopolitical goals might undermine their geo-economic ones.

China and Pakistan are incapable of exerting positive influence over India since they’re both its rivals so this responsibility naturally falls upon America and Russia. America is expected to hype up the so-called “China threat” in order to reassure India of its commitment to the “Old Quad” whose raison d’etre is widely considered to be predicated upon the shared goal of “containing” the People’s Republic. This geopolitical appeal is intended to convince India that the US hasn’t abandoned it by partnering with Pakistan through the geo-economically driven “New Quad”. Regarding Russia, it’s expected to double down on its geo-economic outreaches to India by inviting it to invest more in the Eurasian Great Powers’ resource-rich Arctic and Far Eastern regions to show its historically ally that it too hasn’t abandoned New Delhi by supporting PAKAFUZ.

America and Russia hope that their uncoordinated but nevertheless coincidentally timed respective geopolitical and geo-economic outreaches to India can convince the South Asian state not to behave as a spoiler and consequently sabotage their similar vision for the region through the game-changing Afghan-transiting PAKAFUZ project. Be that as it may, cynical observers are correct in pointing out that the US could strategically afford to sit out on the PAKAFUZ opportunity for now while its new Indian ally sabotages that project for as long as possible in order to undermine the more urgent related goals of America’s Chinese and Russian rivals. Even so, India arguably lacks the capabilities to do so for all that long which means that America would have to geo-economically compete those two there sooner than later, hence why it might not support that scenario.

Indian decision makers would also have to keep in mind that actively obstructing PAKAFUZ through the potential intensification of their proxy war against the Taliban via more military assistance to Kabul would provoke distrust from their historical Russian ally. This could lead to unpredictable long-term strategic consequences if Russia recalibrates its ever-evolving balancing act between India and China by moving closer towards Beijing in response to possibly perceiving of New Delhi as a regionally destabilising US proxy state for dividing and ruling the Eurasian Heartland due to its geopolitical obsession with zero-sum outcomes. While this would be to America’s comparative advantage, pushing India in that direction might be counterproductive if New Delhi already anticipates such a negative outcome and thus suspects Washington of setting it up to fail.

America is also in a tricky strategic position since its repeated threats to sanction India if it goes through with its planned purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defence systems hang heavy over everyone’s heads like a Damocles’ sword. It might be impossible for the US to not impose some sort of sanctions after all the drama that it’s made over this issue otherwise it would risk “losing face”, but substantive ones would worsen its ties with India by pushing it even closer into Russia’s arms so symbolic ones might be a suitable enough “compromise” in order to not ruin bilateral relations with New Delhi and thus inadvertently undermine the “Old Quad’s” anti-Chinese geopolitical purpose by none other than Washington’s own hand. The influence of the S-400 sanctions factor on the overall strategic situation in South Asia is thus more important than some observers might have thought.

As it stands, all of these complex interactions are mostly occurring bilaterally apart from the multilateral political efforts undertaken by the Extended Troika (America, China, Pakistan, and Russia) in Afghanistan. In the best-case scenario, these four countries and India would come together through a single platform in order to more effectively shape the future of South Asia. This would be similar in spirit to the quadrilateral nuclear powers framework that well-respected Valdai Club expert Andrey Sushentsov proposed in June but which the author of this present article argued during that time should be expanded to include Pakistan too. The first practical step in that direction would be if America and Russia successfully convinced India to publicly talk to the Taliban and therefore enabled it to join the Extended Troika.

Upon that happening, this Quintet could then expand the scope of their negotiations to discuss the broader future of “Greater South Asia”, which in this context includes Central Asia seeing as how PAKAFUZ will eventually integrate those two regions into a single one for all strategic intents and purposes. Failing the formation of a platform for bringing together the Quintet’s top South Asian stakeholders, interactions between them will remain limited and thus risk resulting in contradictions that could be counterproductive for their collective interests. Although some in India might think that their grand strategic goals could be advanced by spoiling the PAKAFUZ project that it’s thus far voluntarily isolated itself from, this would be a dangerous illusion since their obstructive efforts would just be temporary and only isolate India even more from all stakeholders.