Two stabilizing elements in Kashmir crisis

March 06, 2019 18:36
Indian soldiers patrol along the country's border with Pakistan. Photo: Reuters

The recent military clashes between India and Pakistan over their disputed territories in Kashmir have sparked concerns across the world that the standoff between the two nuclear powers could possibly escalate into a nuclear Armageddon.

Luckily, judging from the signs lately, such as Pakistan’s release of the captured Indian air force pilot, as well as efforts by the great powers, including the United States, China and Russia, to mediate the conflict, we believe both India and Pakistan are likely to avoid further escalation of the crisis for the time being.

The India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir began almost immediately after the two countries gained independence from Britain in 1947, as both New Delhi and Islamabad have territorial claims over the area.

Since then, countless border skirmishes between the two South Asian neighbors in Kashmir have almost become routine over the past seven decades.

At present, India controls 43 percent of Kashmir, while 37 percent of the region is firmly in the hands of Pakistan.

As far as China is concerned, it is currently having jurisdiction over the remaining 20 percent of the area, which is also known to Beijing as Aksai Chin.

Nevertheless, the long-standing status quo in Kashmir was suddenly toppled by a recent terrorist attack against India, which killed at least 40 local police officers.

New Delhi accused Islamabad of perpetrating the attack, and immediately sent fighter jets into Pakistan and launched air strikes, only to be met with counterattacks by the Pakistani forces.

Both sides have claimed victory over each other, but an aircraft flown by an Indian air force pilot named Abhinandan Varthaman was downed by the Pakistanis during an aerial engagement, and he was later captured.

However, in an apparent attempt to de-escalate the crisis, Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, a former cricket star, has agreed to free the Indian pilot.

So can India and Pakistan really settle their decades-old score after the release of the pilot? Of course, not.

Nonetheless, in our opinion, amid the military standoff, there are two key “stabilizing elements” that can prevent a complete rupture between New Delhi and Islamabad.

First, as both India and Pakistan have enough nuclear warheads in their arsenals to wipe each other off the face of the earth, there is a “balance of terror” in place between the two nations, similar to the situation during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.

In this situation, leaders of both sides would be very careful not to resort to an all-out war with each other because they are perfectly aware that it could result in mutually assured destruction (MAD).

Second, apart from the mutual nuclear threat, there is another safety element that can prevent the Kashmir conflict from spinning out of control: it would be in the best interests of the major powers to contain and defuse the crisis because they all have their own calculations and strategic agendas to serve.

For example, the US has been working closely with Pakistan on counter-terrorism over the years, not to mention that the latter was instrumental in helping Washington hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden.

At the same time, the US has also been working aggressively to enhance ties with India in order to jointly contain China.

For Beijing, Pakistan has remained one of its most steadfast allies over the decades. Yet Beijing is also seeking to befriend India in view of its Belt and Road initiative.

That being said, which will the US and China go for or against if India and Pakistan go on a full-scale war?

The cleverest tactic Washington and Beijing should employ is to play the peace broker and bring both New Delhi and Islamabad back to the negotiation table to settle their dispute.

Interestingly, as the biggest arms exporter to India, Russia, which theoretically leans towards India, didn’t lean completely towards its Indian friends this time.

That's because Moscow would also like to win over Pakistan in order to undermine the geopolitical influence of the US in the region, which explains why President Vladimir Putin has emerged as the most proactive party so far in mediating the Kashmir crisis.

Given that, while the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir is unlikely to go away in the foreseeable future, there is also no need for both New Delhi and Islamabad to mount an all-out war against each other over their territorial dispute.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 5

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal