By Asma Khalid
Nuclear armed Pakistan and India have been locked in an endless conflict over Kashmir ever since they came to exist as two independent countries. The conflict has over past couple of decades threatened to spiral out of control on multiple occasions, but luckily each time it was contained and both sides stepped back from the brink. The latest military stand-off in the aftermath of Pulwama incident was a reminder of the fragile security environment.
The situation has become even more precarious because of the absence of a functional crisis management system between the two countries. In such a situation, the two sides inevitably have to rely on the support of third parties to defuse the explosive situations in which they quite regularly get embroiled. However, in view of the current geo-political environment it is increasingly becoming difficult to find honest peace brokers.
The world often views the Indo-Pak conflict through the prism of their strategic interests in India. This in turn shifts the focus of international conversation away from the Kashmir issue, which is the root cause of the conflict. As witnessed in the latest episode, the international community, as third-party actors, did step in and played a significant role in de-escalation, but the pattern of their involvement this time was different than past efforts of third party diplomacy.
Crisis management and de-escalation role of third party actors is only viable if the third party (or parties) is (are) acceptable to both sides, and they have necessary credibility and influence. This has gained all the more importance due to evolving strategic and economic interests of great powers in South Asia. A crucial question, therefore, is: how does great power politics play out in the Pakistan-India crisis?
During the recent crisis no major country condemned India’s violation of the Pakistan’s airspace and initiation of conventional and nuclear escalation. The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described it as a counter-terrorism strike, instead of aggression against a sovereign state. Meanwhile, on February 27, when Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was in China for the trilateral RIC (Russia-India-China) meeting, Chinese statement too restricted itself to asking both the countries to exercise restraint and avoid escalation.
How has the recent crisis threatened the United States’ interests? In December, 2017, Washington declared that ‘great-power competition’ is the foremost threat to its national security. China and Russia are the primary strategic competitors to the dominance of U.S or its strategic interests. Terrorism, which has been the predominant threat since 2002, was downgraded to second place in the American threat perception. Consequently, U.S. has sought withdrawal of its troops from Syria and Afghanistan to move military and economic resources towards meeting the challenges of great-power competition.
China, Pakistan’s most trusted ally maintained neutrality during the course of military stand-off. Beijing has on multiple occasions, much like many other important capitals, claimed credit for defusing tensions and de-escalating the crisis. It is, however, evident that Beijing refused to pick a side till very late in the crisis
As the U.S. sought to check rising China, they deepened their defense relationship with India. The U.S. also designated India as a key partner of its Indo-Pacific Rebalancing Strategy to balance rising China. This is a manifestation of the offshore balancing strategy advocated by the realist scholar John J. Mearsheimer. Under this strategy, a great power balances a potentially- adversarial great power through reliance on regional powers. In the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. is banking on India, Japan and Australia to balance the economic and military footprint of China. It is natural that if India is occupied by a military situation in Kashmir it becomes a strategic challenge for the U.S., as New Delhi’s attention and resources are consumed by India-Pakistan tensions.
China, Pakistan’s most trusted ally maintained neutrality during the course of military stand-off. Beijing has on multiple occasions, much like many other important capitals, claimed credit for defusing tensions and de-escalating the crisis. It is, however, evident that Beijing refused to pick a side till very late in the crisis. Chinese Foreign Minister Wany Yi indirectly criticized India, when he emphasized on the need to respect sovereignty of all countries after aerial clash between India and Pakistan. It has to be further acknowledged that China is here dealing with a complex situation. It has to weigh in multiple interests at various levels while responding to India-Pakistan tensions.
For one, China has a clear interest in peace and stability in South Asia, as its investments and presence (more than 15,000 Chinese citizens are present in Pakistan) in Pakistan and other South Asian countries have increased manifold during past the five years. Second, China is attempting to build strategic trust with India to address irritants in India-China relations. Third, Beijing isn’t in a position to be a crisis manager like the U.S, has been over decades. China knows its limitations, as being a close partner of Islamabad; it will not be viewed as a neutral arbiter by New Delhi.
As far as Arab countries are concerned, there are two explanations of why they pursue neutrality in the Pakistan-India tensions and do not push either side for addressing other’s concerns. Pakistan is an important strategic partner for the Arab countries as it provides military training and supports them in counter-terrorism operations. Pakistan’s former military chief Gen (R) Raheel Sharif is heading the Islamic Military Alliance based in Saudi Arabia.
India, for Arab countries is a huge market. More importantly, Arab nations, particularly UAE and Saudi Arabia are interested in deepening their strategic and economic engagement with India in a bid to counter Iran’s expanding ties with India. Other than strategic and economic interests, Indian and Pakistani workers constitute the bulk of workforce of UAE and Saudi economies. Peace and stability in South Asia, thus, becomes a critical interest for Arab countries.
It is striking that despite Pakistan’s rebuttal of its involvement in the terrorist attacks and pledges to prosecute the alleged entities, if provided with evidence, India and the international community still does not overtly subscribe to Pakistan’s viewpoint due to their strategic and economic interests. Islamabad must address the root cause of this divergence between the international narrative and Pakistan’s position, because it undermines the Kashmir cause and deflects world’s attention from India’s human rights violations in Occupied Jammu and Kashmir, as also reported by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2018.
At the same time, instead of demonstrating unfair stereotypes and associating them with Pakistan, it is inevitable for regional and global actors to investigate existing as well as past crises and reflect on the missed opportunities of co-operation and draw lessons to avoid escalation in future crisis.
Writer is Senior Research Officer in Islamabad Policy Institute (IPI). She
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