Southern Asia is Heating Up: An Indian Perspective
Editor’s Note: This is the sixth installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a new series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competition — military, economic, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series.
Strife-torn Southern Asia is the second most unstable region in the world after West Asia. India has unresolved territorial disputes with both China and Pakistan. As the Line of Actual Control with China has not been demarcated, there are frequent patrol face-offs. A major standoff, that lasted over two months (mid-June to late August 2017) at the India-Bhutan-China tri-boundary region, has been resolved, but could flare up again. Though there is a cease-fire on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, of late it is being observed more in the breach. China colludes with Pakistan in the nuclear warhead, ballistic missile, and military hardware fields. This has emboldened Pakistan’s deep state — the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate — to sponsor terrorism as an instrument of state policy to destabilise Jammu and Kashmir and attack cities in India through mercenary jihadists. A large-scale terrorist strike in future, similar to the attacks on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 and at Mumbai in November 2008, could lead to war.
The unresolved territorial disputes and repeated terrorist attacks have the potential to trigger conflict, which may not remain limited. India, China, and Pakistan are nuclear-armed states and a miscalculation during conflict may result in rapid escalation to nuclear exchanges. Also, given the Chinese-Pakistani collusion, India is likely to be confronted with a two-front situation during a future conflict with either of them. To navigate the emerging instability in Southern Asia and shifting adversarial relationships with Pakistan and China, India will need to intensify its third most consequential relationship — its strategic partnership with the United States.
India-Pakistan Relations: Stuck in a Groove
Though an ugly stability has prevailed for some time, new risks are emerging in the Indian-Pakistani relationship. The situation demands that India strengthen its military capabilities while deepening U.S engagement. Despite grave provocation from Pakistan over the last three decades, India has consistently observed strategic restraint to keep the level of conflict low so as not to hamper Indian economic growth. However, two attacks by ISI-sponsored terrorists forced India to retaliate assertively. The first was an attack on the Pathankot Air Base in January 2016, a week after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a bold, unscheduled halt in Lahore in a bid to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and reach out to the leadership of Pakistan. The second was on a military camp at Uri near the Line of Control in September 2016.
Taking the Pakistan Army completely by surprise, Indian Special Forces launched multiple surgical strikes across the Line of Control and caused extensive damage. In a one-night operation, six to eight teams crossed the Line of Control at several points over a wide front and destroyed terrorist launch pads in the near vicinity of the line. Regular Pakistani Army soldiers at these launch pads are also likely to have been killed or injured. The strikes had a salutary effect and infiltration levels dropped sharply in the months that followed.
India’s new policy is clearly to maintain a posture of tactical assertiveness under the umbrella of strategic restraint. The aim is to raise the cost for the Pakistan Army and the ISI for waging their war for Kashmir through asymmetric means. The level of the punishment inflicted and the caliber of the weapons employed for the purpose are likely to be raised with each new provocation until the cost becomes prohibitive for the Pakistan Army and the ISI. In case there is a major terrorist attack in India in future and there is credible evidence of the involvement of the organs of the Pakistani state, stronger military retaliation is likely.
The impact of the deterioration in relations is that the “ugly” stability prevailing in Southern Asia has been further undermined. A miscalculation on either side could lead to conventional conflict with nuclear undertones. India’s political leaders and the armed forces believe there is space for conventional conflict below the nuclear threshold. For now, tactical assertiveness under an umbrella of strategic restraint remains the favored approach. However, the Indian public’s patience is wearing thin and its willingness to countenance escalation as an appropriate response to terrorism may be increasing. These domestic pressures, combined with the army’s ongoing search for a limited-war strategy and military modernization, could lead New Delhi to give sanction to proactive offensive operations along the lines of Cold Start in the event of another terrorist-initiated spark. The belief in Western capitals is that conventional conflict between India and Pakistan could rapidly escalate to nuclear exchanges. India’s consideration of escalatory, Cold Start-like operations — and Pakistan’s development of tactical nuclear weapons and its plans to neutralize India’s superiority in conventional military forces through their early use — fuel these concerns.
India-China Relations: Clash of Worldviews
The Indian-Chinese relationship has been stable at the strategic level, but marked by political, diplomatic, and military instability at the tactical level. However, the modus vivendi that has managed relations for decades appears to be fraying. An enhanced U.S.-Indian relationship can help manage deepening Chinese-Pakistani ties.
Besides the long-standing territorial dispute between the two countries, transgressions across the Line of Actual Control by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are frequent despite the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (1993) and several other accords, all of which forbid such activities. As was well reported, India and China were embroiled in a contest of wills in the India-Bhutan-China tri-boundary over the summer. The crisis started when the Indian Army crossed into territory disputed by Bhutan and China to stop PLA soldiers from constructing a motorable road toward a Bhutan Army outpost. In contrast to past border disputes involving India and China, Beijing insisted New Delhi had intervened across a settled international boundary and, therefore, had to withdraw its forces before negotiations could commence. As it was unfolding, Indian strategic thinkers interpreted the incident as no less than an attempt by Beijing to force New Delhi to “acknowledge the power disparity between the two sides and show appropriate deference to China.”
China refuses to allow Masood Azhar, the founder of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad — a U.N.-designated terrorist group — be designated as a terrorist by the U.N. sanctions committee. It has blocked India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group as it wants simultaneous entry for Pakistan, one of the world’s worst proliferators. China objects every time an Indian political leader visits Arunachal Pradesh — an Indian state that it claims — and even lodged a protest at the visit of the Dalai Lama to a monastery in the state.
The China-Pakistan relationship has been described by both as an “all-weather friendship.” The collusion between the two states has deepened with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) beginning to take shape. CPEC is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to extend China’s strategic outreach deep into the Indo-Pacific region, giving a fillip to its flagging economy by generating large-scale construction activity and creating new markets for its products. Passing through the disputed territories of Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the $54 billion project will link Xingjiang Province of China with Gwadar Port on the Makran Coast west of Karachi. New Delhi fears that the presence of PLA personnel in Pakistan in large numbers to protect CPEC and related investments could further vitiate the security environment.
Stabilizing Influence: Indo-U.S. Strategic Partnership
The Indo-U.S. defense relationship has witnessed a remarkable rise in recent years. During his tenure at the Pentagon’s helm, Ash Carter memorably remarked that the Indo-U.S. relationship was “destined to be one of the most significant partnerships of the 21st century.” These sentiments, widespread in New Delhi and Washington, have led to concrete advances, such as the conclusion of a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and India’s designation as a Major Defense Partner of the United States.
Some expectations on both sides are yet to be met. For instance, India has not signed the Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement or the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, which the Pentagon says must be concluded before Washington would be able to establish encrypted communication links with New Delhi and share sensitive data, such as targeting information, during both peacetime and crisis scenarios. Nevertheless, the overall trend in the relationship is clear, with defense trade between the two powers totalling more than $10 billion over the last decade. The partnership is likely to gradually rise to the next level, including joint threat assessment, joint contingency planning, and joint operations when the vital national interests of both countries are threatened.
Washington is also well-positioned to help New Delhi deal with the emerging competitive realities of its strategic environment.
One of the motivations behind this growing strategic partnership is to provide a hedge for both against what is increasingly being perceived as China’s not-so-peaceful rise. In case China behaves irresponsibly and uses military force somewhere in the Indo-Pacific, both India and the United States will need a strong partnership to manage the consequences. American support is essential to the revitalization of Indian military power, whether through arms sales, technology transfers, or co-production of weapons systems, all of which are on the table. The Doka La standoff serves as a reminder that India can ill afford to continue lagging in terms of the pace and scope of its defense-modernization process. Ties to the United States must also be leveraged in countering Beijing’s provocative diplomatic and military maneuvers. Washington has been steadfast in its support for New Delhi’s bid for NSG membership and Azhar’s designation as a global terrorist despite Beijing’s intransigence. It has also bolstered Indian naval capabilities via maritime exercises such as Malabar and the sale of maritime surveillance and anti-submarine platforms that are essential for tracking and countering China’s presence in the Indian Ocean.
The United States could also work with India to mitigate dangers emanating from Pakistan. Washington’s maintenance of ties to Rawalpindi is predicated upon ensuring that nuclear warheads never fall into jihadist hands. U.S.-Pakistani cooperation on nuclear security serves Indian interests, but there are other areas in which Washington could be a better friend to New Delhi.
First, the United States could help India bolster its standoff strike and surveillance capabilities along the Indo-Pakistani border. Israel has already offered India armed drones. The prospective sale of U.S.-made, unarmed Sea Guardian drones signals that intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance is a priority area of collaboration. Persistent American concerns that such transfers could violate its nonproliferation obligations under the Missile Technology Control Regime may be on the wane. Equally important, the United States could put more pressure on Pakistan to cease its support to anti-Indian terrorists. Washington’s decision last year to withhold $300 million from Rawalpindi in military reimbursements, the debate in policy circles as to whether the United States should designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, and the Modi-Trump joint statement’s emphasis on stopping “cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups” are indicators of a potential New Delhi-Washington convergence on Pakistan. Resurgent India is now at a breakout moment in its history. As a status-quo power that has shunned military alliances and maintained its strategic autonomy, India is being gradually propelled by China’s military assertiveness to hedge its bets, especially by courting deeper ties to Washington. India must reassert its primacy in Southern Asia by looking and acting outwards. It is India’s manifest destiny to play a leading role in shaping the emerging order in the Indo-Pacific region.
Gurmeet Kanwal is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi and Adjunct Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C.
Image: Indian Army