Daniel S. Markey, Adjunct Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia
Relations between China and Pakistan are indeed growing, but must be considered in a wider context to understand their potential implications for the United States and India.
Close Sino-Pakistani relations are nothing new. Especially with respect to military and nuclear ties, Beijing and Islamabad have have been friendly since the 1960s. In recent years, bilateral trade and investment have increased. Looking to the future, China's expanding influence in Central Asia and its interest in overland access to the Arabian Sea could motivate even stronger links with Pakistan.
From that starting point, add the following: Pakistan's deeply rooted hostility toward India, Washington's post-Cold War courtship of New Delhi, and the potential for a future global order characterized by competition between the United States and China.
If these were the only pieces of the regional puzzle, it would be reasonable to expect a competitive two-bloc formation to take shape in South Asia: China and Pakistan versus India and the United States. But the puzzle is actually much more complicated. Four trends cut "cross-bloc."
First, China-India trade is now larger than both trade between China and Pakistan and trade between India and the United States. Whereas during the late Cold War China had good reasons to unite with Pakistan in undermining India, today Beijing profits from regional stability and normal working relations with New Delhi.
Second, India is not entirely sure that it wants to place all its eggs in the U.S. basket; longstanding nonaligned tendencies die hard, and "strategic autonomy" is more popular in Delhi than is playing for Washington's team.
Third, Pakistan's future is a real wildcard. In a worst case scenario, internal violence and instability would even scare off its Chinese ally. In a best case, Islamabad would act to realize its own economic interests through normalized relations with India.
Finally, if future U.S.-China relations are cooperative more than conflict-prone, then Chinese involvement in Pakistan offers little to fear; it may even promote stabilizing economic development that would serve everyone's purposes.