The United States, China, India, Pakistan, and Russia are transforming South Asia.

SCO Summit and south asia
world leaders at SCO Conference: Source news agencies

The region of South Asia has emerged as a nexus of American, Chinese, and Russian interests in the run-up to the United States military withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 31st, making it the most geo-strategically crucial region on Earth at the moment. Those three Great Powers are actively involved in shaping the situation in Afghanistan, working in cooperation with the country’s two most prominent stakeholders, India and Pakistan, to achieve their objectives. As a result of the numerous encounters between members of this “Quintet” in South Asia, the future of the supercontinent and, consequently, the ongoing New Cold War between the American and Chinese superpowers, given the region’s centrality, will be substantially influenced. For the benefit of the common observer, the current study seeks to simplify these complicated dynamics in order to aid everyone in better understanding the significance of what is currently taking place in the world.

The situation is always shifting, but there are a few key tendencies that may still be identified. These include the transition from geopolitics to geoeconomics; the United States and Russia’s efforts to strike a balance between India and Pakistan; and the cautious acceptance of the Taliban into the international community by the United States, China, and Russia. The most recent significant developments are the agreement to build a railway connecting Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) in February; Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s regional sojourn in early April; the Tashkent conference on Central Asia-South Asia connectivity in mid-July; the United States’ “New Quad” with the PAKAFUZ states; US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to India; and the Taliban’s latest terrorist attack in Pakistan.

The significance of the top trends is as follows, in the order in which they were mentioned: the Great Powers are concentrating on friendly geo-economic competition in the Eurasian Heartland; this necessitates America and Russia working more closely with India and Pakistan in this pivotal region; as facilitated by those first two; and China’s pragmatic relations with the Taliban. Regarding the developments that are relevant, they are significant because PAKAFUZ is the vehicle for achieving this; Russia successfully restored balance to its South Asian strategy this spring; everyone except India tacitly supports PAKAFUZ; the US’ “New Quad” demonstrates the seriousness of its planned geo-economic engagement; the US wishes to allay India’s concerns about the aforementioned; the aforementioned is a priority for the United States.

The only realistic spoiler in this scenario is India, for the following reasons: it has so far refused to enter into public contact with the Taliban, thereby disqualifying it from participation in the Extended Troika format in Afghanistan, which requires all participants to have ties with both warring parties; and it increases the risk that New Delhi will provide more military support to the Taliban. The best approach would be for India to be urged by its American and Russian partners to engage in a public dialogue with the Taliban, allowing New Delhi to subsequently join in the Extended Troika and, as a result, safeguard and enhance its important economic interests in the process.

The implementation of that proposal is currently underway, but the final outcome is still uncertain due to the following factors: India is extremely uncomfortable with its historical Russian ally recently becoming so close to the Taliban; it has serious doubts about its new American ally’s strategic intentions with the “New Quad” given Pakistan’s key role in it, and it expects to spark a domestic political scandal if the proposal is implemented. This is why India’s regional strategy has not yet fully transitioned from geopolitics to geo-economics, as has the strategy of the United States, China, Pakistan, and Russia. This makes India an unpredictable outlier among the members of the Quintet, as its advancement of geopolitical goals may jeopardise the achievement of their geo-economic objectives.

Because China and Pakistan are both India’s enemies, they are unable to exercise good influence over the country, and as a result, the United States and Russia must shoulder this burden. In order to reassure India of its commitment to the “Old Quad,” which is largely seen to be dependent on a shared goal of “containing” the People’s Republic of China, the United States is likely to amplify the so-called “China threat.” It is the goal of this geopolitical appeal to persuade India that the United States has not abandoned it by cooperating with Pakistan in the geo-economically driven “New Quad.” Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to expand his geoeconomic outreach to India by inviting the country to invest more in the resource-rich Arctic and Far Eastern regions of the Eurasian Great Powers to demonstrate to its historically ally that it, too, has not abandoned New Delhi by supporting the PAKAFUZ initiative.

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