The United States: A Bystander, Balancer or Peace Broker in Future India-Pakistan Relations?

Despite the recent ceasefire along the Line of Control, the prospects of improved Pakistan-India relations remain bleak and uncertain. This pessimistic situation has been created by India itself in recent years when New Delhi pushed this bilateral relationship towards a blind alley by attempting to alter the demography and identity of Kashmiris in Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Along with this, the Hindutva-inspired extremist Indian government and its brutal anti-minority policy has also deepened domestic insecurity and quest for liberation in minority factions within its own sovereign territory. In these circumstances, re-establishing trust for this bilateral relationship will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Despite Pakistan’s repeated efforts for peace between the two countries, the revocation of Article 370 and subsequent events have restrained Pakistan from further peace overtures unless and until India also demonstrates political will and steps forward. The current hostile environment and Indian government’s strong anti-Pakistan narrative makes bilateral diplomatic progress very difficult. Under the new US administration and its growing strategic interests in what it has labelled the “Indo-Pacific”, it is necessary to analyze the US’ role in India-Pakistan tensions, and see if it is likely to be different from the previous one.

In attempting to revive its global leadership and restore American diplomacy, the Biden administration is likely to reset its foreign policy objectives in South Asia. The new administration is well aware of the strategic importance of Pakistan and its pivotal role in maintaining the Afghan peace process, especially given growing American war fatigue. The US is also acknowledging, albeit less enthusiastically, the significance of Sino-Pak relations.

Pakistan’s global image has significantly improved of late thanks to its remarkable achievements in countering terrorism and its recently strengthened ties with several nations. The Biden administration cannot ignore these facts while determining its future approach towards this region.

In post-pandemic times, great power competition is likely to re-emerge with full force amidst phenomenally changing relations and re-alignments. The “Indo-Pacific” region will be the main theatre where this great power competition will play out. It is evident that here the US is clearly building up India as a counterweight to rising China. President Biden is a long-time friend of India, and once described the US–India partnership as the “defining partnership of the 21st Century.” Quad stands as a prime example of this constantly strengthening US-India partnership.

Such disproportionate American focus on the “Indo-Pacific” region indicates that Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s relevance in particular in this regard is likely to become peripheral. It is hoped that the US sees Pakistan with a fresh perspective rather than just seeing it as a facilitator in Afghanistan.

The current US administration is vocal about its strategy of ‘Cooperation-Competition’ with China. Under this strategy, the US is expected to ensure that its influence within South Asia does not become restricted only to New Delhi, and Pakistan does not completely pivot towards Beijing. While in terms of US competition with China, Washington would still trust India as an ally, despite its hegemonic regional goals as long as these do not divert Indian military might away from Beijing.

In view of the above strategic realities, in any future conflicting scenario between Pakistan and India, the US is likely to act as an observer or bystander rather than being a proactive helping hand for one party or the other. Most importantly, in case of Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir, the US is likely to remain a silent observer, unless and until China becomes involved which may happen after the recent Line of Actual Control (LAC) conflict. During the latter, the US attracted increased Indian interest in acquiring and preferring American weapons over Russian. Hence, the US is likely to stay away from the Sino-India border conflict. Resultantly, the new US administration should consider following a more balanced approach between India and Pakistan in order to maintain regional stability in South Asia to pursue its “Indo-Pacific” objectives.

Hananah Zarrar
Hananah Zarrar
Hananah Zarrar is a Researcher at Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad. She holds an MPhil degree with major area of interest in Strategic and Nuclear Affairs.