In an unfolding geopolitical shift that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, Pakistan and India appear willing to «trade off» allies with one another, «exchanging» their privileged partnerships with the Saudis and Russians respectively as a means of enhancing their relative position vis-à-vis their leaderships’ attitude towards China. While Russia and India are still close historic and strategic partners, the former ties of fraternity have, despite rhetorical statements and symbolic actions by their each of their governments, gradually frayed amidst the post-Cold War geopolitical situation and the developing one that’s playing out in the New Cold War. More importantly, however, is that India’s obvious efforts to cozy up with Saudi Arabia are aimed not only against Pakistan, but also tacitly against China in a demonstration of one of the most unusual and nontraditional geopolitical arrangements of the New Cold War.
The research at hand aims not to present an extensive academic review of the history of relations between the examined countries, the nitty-gritty nuances of their present and developing ties, nor an absolute collection of facts about each and every one of their most recent newsworthy events as it relates to one another, but to broadly raise awareness about the unmistakable geopolitical patterns that are emerging in the larger context of the New Cold War. The spoken-about relationships are not irreversible and many things may still change in this unprecedented period of global uncertainty and systemic transition, although they do convincingly appear to be entering a stage where this will become increasingly difficult as new strategic mentalities set in and become customary thinking among their deep state (military, intelligence, and diplomatic) representatives.
The purpose is not to heap scorn onto India or its countrymen, and the invocation of that country’s name as well as that of its capital should not be interpreted as referring to Indian people in general. When mentioned in this text, they relate only to the present Indian political establishment, and the same general rule holds true for each of the countries that are being studied. Nevertheless, the work is unapologetically critical of India for, as the author sees it, unnecessarily flirting too closely with the unipolar world out of a reactionary knee-jerk response to the presumed imperatives of «containing China» and «pressuring Pakistan», which may ultimately result in New Delhi wittingly or unwittingly becoming a key American strategic ally in the New Cold War with time.
To summarize one of the most admittedly unexpected geopolitical trends of the modern day, Pakistan is moving away from Saudi Arabia and closer to Russia at the same moment that India is doing the reverse. For example, Islamabad refused to join Riyadh’s «anti-terrorist» coalition, although this has led to a split between Pakistan’s political and military classes. Saudi Arabia hasn’t given up trying to woo Pakistan, however, since the latest talk is that the commander of Pakistan’s armed forces could possibly lead the Saudis’ «anti-terrorist» bloc. This «tug-of-war» between the pro-Saudi military and the ruling pro-Chinese politicians will likely define Pakistan’s strategic situation for the near future, and it’s very possible that Riyadh and its Washington ally may try to once more stir the pot of separatism and terrorism in Baluchistan as a means of pressuring Islamabad to redirect its trajectory back towards its traditional unipolar allies. That being said, like the author wrote for the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies back in September 2015, Pakistan is the «zipper» of pan-Eurasian integration and this geopolitical obviousness has led to an intensification of ties between Islamabad and Moscow, predicated on the shared anticipated benefit that both of them will receive through the Central Asia-South Asia multipolar transnational connective infrastructure nexus being constructed by China in accordance with its One Belt One Road vision.
India is proceeding in the opposite direction of Pakistan, which can be seen both by its steady replacement of Russia with the US as its chief arms supplier and Modi’s recent visit to the land of King Salman. To expand on New Delhi’s wealth of new strategic relations with Washington, the two sides are on the verge of agreeing to a «Logistical Support Agreement» that «would allow the two militaries to use each other’s land, air and naval bases for resupplies, repair and rest». In practice, this means that the US can employ «plausibly deniable’ pretexts to move its land, air, and sea forces on a de-facto rotational basis, whether indefinite or temporary (likely decided on a case-by-case basis depending on the military facility in question and the current geopolitical context) all the way up to China’s Tibetan and Yunan borders. Though it’s a promising and pragmatic sign that India opted not to participate in the US’ proposal that they jointly patrol the South China Sea, it’s still very disturbing that Modi previously spoke about so-called «freedom of navigation» in the region, which is commonly uttered as a euphemism for «containing China».
Swinging the focus over to Saudi Arabia, the US’ premier unipolar ally in the Arab region, the national general secretary of the BJP and unnamed government officials are quoted by Reuters as openly boasting that the Prime Minister’s trip is meant to «deal with Pakistan» by «[using] economics, strategy and emotional ties to win the hearts of Islamabad’s friends», which amounts to «an effort to ‘de-hyphenate’ India from Pakistan». India’s advances towards Saudi Arabia are not just premised on a simple desire to «pressure Pakistan», but are instead part of what the New Delhi establishment likely sees as a shrewd and preemptive way to deflect the potentially forthcoming danger of Saudi-supported terrorism inside the country against the majority «Hindu infidels» (as they’re derogatorily seen by Islamic extremists). Al Qaeda, which has always been linked to prominent Saudi individuals, businessmen, and «charities», announced in September 2014 that it would be moving into the Indian subcontinent, and given the rising pro-Daesh sympathies and Islamic fundamentalist tendencies that have taken root in Bangladesh since then, India could be trying to ingratiate itself with one of the world’s chief sponsors of international terrorism in order to acquire a guarantee that Riyadh will do its utmost to prevent these Saudi-tied organizations from targeting it.
Russia and China do not force any conditions onto their partners or let their sovereign decisions to engage in diversified geopolitical relations detract from their bilateral ties, though the same cannot be said for the US and Saudi Arabia. While it’s entirely possible for India and Pakistan to pragmatically and simultaneously engage with a multitude of international actors, the US and Saudi Arabia, just as they’ve historically done with others before (most notably in the recent instances of Ukraine and Yemen), will force these two South Asian states into a false «either-or» choice that results in zero-sum consequences for the rejected set of partners. India will likely be able to straddle the New Cold War divide in such a way that the relationship that its civil society and business actors have with Russia would remain intact, but New Delhi’s high-level state-to-state geopolitical coordination with Moscow would undoubtedly suffer.
Furthermore, if India even succeeds in pulling off the aforementioned optimistic scenario of retaining positive non-governmental ties with Russia amidst heavy American pressure, this would be purely due to the historical affinity between both sides and is not replicable as it relates to full-spectrum Indian-Chinese relations. Concerning these, they would obviously be adversely affected and the current in-process Cold War between New Delhi and Beijing in the Greater Indian Ocean-South Asia Region can be expected to accelerate and reach possibly hostile levels, especially in the event that the «Logistical Support Agreement» leads to some sort of American military presence (however temporary) close to China’s mainland borders.
Concerning Saudi Arabia, it’s not in a position to force India into making a choice, but it already is trying to do this with Pakistan, which has been a decades-long ally and in which it has entrenched institutional and soft power influence that it cultivated over time. Just like the US will try to force India to choose between itself and Russia, Saudi Arabia will seek to do something similar in forcing Pakistan to choose between itself and China. Both pressuring actors hold certain foundational assumptions about their given targets, namely the Americans believe that the Indians will unabatedly proceed along their defined anti-Chinese geopolitical trajectory while the Saudis think that the Pakistani-Russian ties are dependent on their shared convergence through China’s One Belt One Road Central Asia-South Asia infrastructure. Accordingly, the US sees no need to explicitly address India’s grand strategy towards China because it already largely aligns with Washington’s interests, while Saudi Arabia correspondingly knows that Pakistan’s choice concerning Riyadh or Beijing will determine its ultimate course of action towards Moscow.
The Saudi-Chinese Cold War
Tangential to the topic of Saudi Arabia’s changing relations towards India and Pakistan, it should be overtly emphasized that both branches of the Saudis’ South Asian ties are based off of Riyadh’s calculations towards China. Extrapolating a bit, a grand strategic review of South Asia and the Horn of Africa indicates that a Cold War between Saudi Arabia and China is indeed occurring at the moment and looks likely to develop into a serious geopolitical factor in the future. To clarify what is meant by this, it’s easier to begin with the region that’s presently under focus. Saudi Arabia and China are competing for influence in Pakistan and the loyalty of its most influential elite classes, the military and political establishments, which has already been described previously.
Moving over to Bangladesh, China worked hard to make itself one of the country’s premier strategic partners over the past couple of decades, but the current political unrest centered on the pro-Saudi Bangladesh Nationalist Party could reverse all of that if the opposition manages to exploit the ongoing events and ends up seizing power. The last zone of competition between the two countries lays in the Maldives, which just emerged from a very tense period of Hybrid War drama that the author analyzed at the time, and is now tilting closer to Saudi Arabia than it is to China. For example, although occupying a crucial position along China’s One Belt One Road Sea Lines of Communication, the Maldives are now part of the Saudis’ «anti-terrorist» coalition and the two sides have agreed to boost «religious ties», which is typically an expression that denotes the Saudis’ institutionalized proselytization of violent Wahhabism.
Horn of Africa:
As it regards the Horn of Africa, China is very closely partnered with Ethiopia, which is the world’s fastest-growing economy and is expected to soon emerge as a continental leader. Central to the One Belt One Road vision is that belief that China must acquire access to new markets and outbound investment destinations in order to sustain domestic growth and internal stability. Ethiopia occupies a major role in this strategy and it’s essential that China tap into its awakening potential, which explains why it’s constructing the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway that’s set to open very soon. Complementary to this geo-economic imperative, China is also opening its first-ever overseas military base in Djibouti, which will allow it to exert dual influence on the maritime reaches of the Bab-el-Mandeb and the Horn of Africa’s Ethiopian heartland.
In parallel with this happening, the Saudis and the GCC military bloc that they oversee have also been moving into this region ostensibly under the guise of gaining logistical support facilities for their War on Yemen. An October 2015 UN report documented how «Eritrea forged a new strategic military relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that involved allowing the Arab coalition to use Eritrean land, airspace and territorial waters in its anti-Houthi military campaign in Yemen” and that «Eritrean soldiers are embedded with the United Arab Emirates contingent of the forces fighting on Yemeni soil». The author thoroughly analyzed what this development means for disrupting the hitherto equitable military balance between Eritrea and its Ethiopian rival, and the conclusion was that the GCC might use its new ally’s territory as a launching pad for exerting asymmetrical influence onto Ethiopia. Furthermore, Qatar already has troops in both Eritrea and Djibouti as part of a UN-agreed conflict mediation mechanism, while Saudi Arabia is about to open up a base in the latter coincidentally at the same time as China is supposed to. Another key development to consider is that the UAE is allegedly interested in opening up a military facility in the Gulf of Aden-abutting Somalian region of Somaliland.
Altogether, it’s plain to see that a recognizable pattern is emerging – the GCC is steadily encircling China’s Ethiopian ally, and whether it had intended for this to happen or not, it’s very possible that a security dilemma between the two sides will erupt as they jostle for influence along the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa hinterland. Ethiopia is integral to China’s global vision and has an irreplaceable role as a geographically convenient middleman for African-based Chinese businesses, using its advantageous conduit position to facilitate their interaction with European and Asian markets via the maritime access that they’ll acquire from the Ethiopian-Djibouti Railway. Contrarily, the US recognizes this unparalleled importance and is likely to call upon its GCC allies in exerting pressure against Chinese interests there as a means of subverting Beijing’s geo-economic benefits. This could take the form of Qatar and Eritrea, both of which have been linked to the terrorist group Al Shabaab, utilizing the militant organization as a proxy lever of destabilizing influence against Ethiopia, particularly in targeting the northwestern part of the latter’s Somali Region through which the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway is expected to pass. Moreover, even if the GCC only provides strategic support to its new Red Sea ally (or illegally circumvents UNSC sanctions in shipping it weaponry), then this could launch a proxy arms race with China, which would be compelled to boost the capabilities of Ethiopia in order to compensate for the unexpected offsetting of the military equilibrium that its ally has with Eritrea.
It’s relevant to bear in mind that Ethiopia is truly envisioned to play a major role in the One Belt One Road global connective infrastructure network, and that China’s opening of its first-ever overseas military base in Djibouti is partially founded on strategically securing its partner’s rise and supervising the terminal point of the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway. Likewise, this only gives the US an even greater motivation to try to offset its rival’s plans, which is where the role of the Saudi-led GCC and its Horn of Africa military deployments comes into focus. Relatedly, it’s not a coincidence that both Djibouti and Somalia joined the Saudis’ «anti-terrorist» coalition, and while it’s doubtful that Djibouti would do anything to destroy the enormous win-win benefit that it’s expected to reap from its cooperation with China, the same can’t be said for Mogadishu’s calculations in siding with the bloc. Somalia might not object to its territory being used to asymmetrically destabilize Ethiopia, especially considering that the GCC-allied and fellow extremist-propagating state of Turkey is also opening up a base in the national capital.
India And Pakistan In The New Cold War’s Shifting Geopolitics
The research has argued up until this point that the South Asian states of India and Pakistan are moving in opposite geopolitical directions, with New Delhi and Islamabad «trading off’ their traditional Russian and Saudi allies respectively between one another out of their divergent calculations in posturing towards China. Pakistan is favorable to China and is thus intensifying its relations with Russia in accordance with the same multipolar motivations that guide its relations towards Beijing, while India is opposed to China and is doing the same with Saudi Arabia out of animosity towards both Islamabad and Beijing. It’s this latter angle of how India’s emerging partnership with Saudi Arabia is aimed against China that has yet to be elaborated on, so the forthcoming section will describe the geopolitical principles that are guiding this move and conversely catapulting Pakistan’s global multipolar significance to even greater heights than it ever was before.
As it stands, India is poised to play a decisive role in the emerging Saudi-Chinese Cold War and Modi’s visit to the Arabian Kingdom has to be seen in this context. Recalling all that was analyzed above about the Red Sea-to-Bay of Bengal rivalry between Riyadh and Beijing, it’s self-evident how India’s insertion into this tense geopolitical equation could come as a game-changer for the unipolar world. In fact, as India becomes more assertive in projecting its maritime interests, its strategic anti-Chinese complementarity with Saudi Arabia (especially as it overlaps in the Maldives) can eventually jeopardize the freedom of navigation that China will depend on in making the maritime portion of its One Belt One Road project a feasible reality.
While it’s not expected that the Saudi-Indian «coalition» will ever shut down these routes entirely, from the Chinese perspective, this strategic partnership could certainly present a formidable joint opponent as it relates to the proverbial «line of fire» battleground states of Bangladesh and the Maldives. Should the Saudis and Indians succeed in wrestling these two countries out of China’s pragmatic orbit to the point that that the One Belt One Road’s pertinent infrastructure projects are adversely impacted, then this would complicate China’s efforts to establish reliable Sea Lines of Communication and thus weaken the sustainable reliability of its maritime economic access to Europe and East Africa. The structural ramification of this development is that China would become inversely dependent on the mainland portion of its New Silk Road strategy, which could thus be disproportionately offset if the US and its allies manage to spark a series of Hybrid War scenarios in Central Asia.
The Rimland Alliance:
To put India’s prospective strategic alliances with the US and/or Saudi Arabia into a global perspective, New Delhi would essentially be sealing most of the Eurasian Rimland together as an integral part of Washington’s nascent supercontinental alliance against Russia and China. At this very moment, the US is striving to construct an «Intermarum» coalition of anti-Russian states in Eastern Europe which would then link up with Erdogan’s Turkey and be in a close strategic working proximity with the Saudi-led GCC. On the other side of Eurasia, the US aims to bring Japan and South Korea together under an ostensibly «North Korean»-directed military coordination mechanism that would obviously have an unstated dual anti-Chinese function. Expanding on Japan’s role, the island state is expected to be the US’ main «Lead From Behind» partner in bringing together the Northeast Asian and Southeast Asian theaters into a grand anti-Chinese ‘containment’ front, building upon ASEAN’s TPP-member states and the Philippines in order to expand the US-led strategic coalition into the entire economic bloc. In between these Western, Middle, and Eastern Eurasian blocs lays India, which could arguably play the key role in bridging the geographic divide between the US’ GCC and Japan-ASEAN allies. All told, India is integral to the long-term endurance of the Rimland Alliance, which is why it’s being so aggressively courted by US.
The Pakistani Pivot:
The possibility that India could strategically join forces with the unipolar world by siding with the US and/or Saudi Arabia (either of which would attain the same structural ends vis-à-vis the Rimland Alliance) is not lost on Russia and China, which correspondingly have reacted by deepening their ties with Pakistan out of pure geopolitical necessity. Iran is also important to both of these multipolar Eurasian anchors, but unlike Pakistan, the former Persia is strategically hemmed in by the Saudis and their sectarian «anti-terrorist» coalition, which could predictably be used against it to varying nonconventional extents in a «containment»-esque sort of way. Although there still exists a multitude of beneficial multipolar opportunities in Iran that Russia and China can realistically tap into, the inconvenient geostrategic fact remains that the country is strictly a continental power and that most of its maritime potential (except for the Indian-affiliated Chabahar port) is dependent on the Strait of Hormuz and consequently subject to potential GCC and US obstruction in a similar (albeit less intense) manner as the Strait of Malacca is. So as not to be mistaken, the author isn’t dismissing the importance of Iran in the emerging multipolar world order – the country has a very strategic significance – but this needs to be tempered with a realistic assessment of its geographical limitations.
Pakistan, on the other hand, is the ultimate Eurasian pivot state in China’s One Belt One Road vision, since only it alone has the capability of «zipping» together the diverse economic blocs surrounding its near vicinity and directly connecting the interests of Russia and China. It’s true that Moscow and Beijing’s mainland economic interests also intersect through Tehran, but those of the East Asian state must first transit all the way through Central Asia in order to get there. Accounting for the very real possibility that the US will attempt to stage some sort of Hybrid War disruption there in the coming future, perhaps triggered by the inevitable passing of Islam Karimov, the «Uzbek Gaddafi» who miraculously managed to unify all of his country’s disparate clans, it can be projected that Central Asian destabilization might hinder China’s plans for directly connecting its economy to Iran. On the other hand, Pakistan, while a target itself, is considerably better accustomed to dealing with such threats owing to its battle-hardened experience in the post-9/11 era, and furthermore, Russian-Chinese-Pakistani infrastructure projects would only have to traverse through the relatively stable and much-less-threatened country of Kazakhstan.
The Containment Breakout Plan:
The combined military-strategic axes of Russia-Kazakhstan and China-Pakistan fuse together at the Dzungarian Gate and are strong enough to forge a reliable development corridor for all of Eurasia that boldly breaks through the Rimland Alliance via its pivotal Pakistani portion. Pakistan is absolutely essential to Russia and China in providing both of them with a non-unipolar-influenced access route to the Indian Ocean, which becomes all the more important as the US progressively tightens the «containment» noose around their respective West Eurasian and East Eurasian peripheries. India’s potential incorporation into the Rimland Alliance through its cooperation with the US-Saudi strategic axis only heightens the importance of the Pakistani Pivot to Moscow and Beijing’s long-term planning, and New Delhi’s strong flirtations with this unipolar bloc are unwittingly hastening the fulfilment of the very same development corridor that it ideally wishes was scrapped. It can thence be observed that India’s touchy reaction to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and its subsequent outreaches to the US-Saudi strategic axis have the very real potential of setting off a massive security dilemma if they haven’t done so already, and that with Brazil and South Africa already under «constitutional coup» pressure by the US, then India’s «defection» to the unipolar forces would assuredly spell the end of BRICS and strip it down to its original Russian-Chinese core.
The New Cold War, although still in its infancy, has already been filled with exciting twists and turns, be it the reunification of Crimea with Russia or Russia’s anti-terrorist intervention in Syria. On the negative front, however, it’s led to the US asserting a heavy degree of unprecedented influence over most of Ukraine in turning it against Russia, as well as making strong strides in «poaching» strategic states into the restrictive TPP arrangement and away from China’s sway. With the global proxy war in full gear between the unipolar and multipolar worlds, the two sides are struggling to undermine the other at the same time as they’re competing amongst themselves for the loyalty of on-the-fence «neutral’ states.
It’s this latter dynamic in which India could play a game-changing role, since while it engages in institutional (BRICS) and economic multipolarity, it has yet to fully commit itself to embracing the geopolitical aspects of this responsibility. Attempting to sit on the fence for as long as possible but still making highly publicized geopolitical outreaches to the unipolar world, India is giving its fellow Eurasian allies an uncomfortable feeling that it isn’t fully sincere in its stated multipolar commitments and that it might «flip» towards the US in the same paradigm-changing fashion as China did in the 1970s.
By moving closer to the US-Saudi strategic axis at the precise time that its two main members are waging proxy competitions against Russia and China in the context of the New Cold War, India’s activity inspires justified suspicion from what it claims are its multipolar partners and fully legitimizes their new era of strategic relations with Pakistan. As regretful as it is for the author to forecast, if New Delhi’s current geopolitical trajectory continues to proceed apace, then India might enact the game-changing decision to turn its back on the multipolar world by siding with the US and Saudi Arabia out of narrow-minded spite for Pakistan and China, which could tragically collapse its decades-established relations with Russia in the process.
The author’s viewpoint may not coincide with the opinion of RISS.