Another nuclear crisis in the making? Great power competition and the risk of war in South Asia

By Moeed Yusuf | June 5, 2018


In May 1998, India and, later, Pakistan conducted multiple nuclear tests to become the first pair to go nuclear in the post-Cold War era. Two decades on, these South Asian rivals remain locked in a deeply antagonistic relationship that constantly threatens to boil over.

The US-North Korea showdown, the upcoming summit, and the fate of the Iranian nuclear dealhave consumed the global nuclear debate over the past year. During this time, India and Pakistan have slipped into an active low-level confrontation largely unnoticed. Violence on the Line of Control (LoC) that divides the Indian and Pakistani controlled parts of the disputed territory of Kashmir has been at its highest level since the two sides agreed to a ceasefire in 2003. In 2017, the bloodiest year since, there were nearly 3,000 ceasefire violations. Persistent tit-for-tat military shelling across the LoC has caused significant casualties and damage. Civilians have been targeted and killed at an unprecedented rate, as well.

Previous wars and major crises between the two sides were triggered by miscalculated military maneuvers in Kashmir or, in more recent years, by terrorist attacks. Neither can be ruled out in the current context; either could unleash a deadly escalatory spiral. The risks involved in such a scenario would quickly remind the world why US President Bill Clinton dubbed the LoC as “the most dangerous place” on Earth at the turn of the century. India and Pakistan lack robust bilateral escalation control mechanisms. In the past, they have depended heavily on the United States and other strong third-party states with influence in the region to mediate crisis outcomes. These third parties have responded eagerly and acted with remarkable coordination in pursuit of de-escalation.

The next crisis may demand the same—but the global powers may be found wanting. The antecedent conditions that previously drove their positive engagement have already eroded. Never since South Asia’s nuclearization has global politics been so uncertain, great power relations so fraught, and competing global priorities so distracting. This reality combined with the continued absence of alternative tested crisis management experiences in South Asia may force a break from the successful crisis management patterns of the past.

A look at the past. South Asia’s nuclearization in 1998 not only ushered in a new era of regional nuclear competition but it also forced a rethink of the established norms of nuclear crisis management. The Cold War was dominated by the two superpowers. No stronger third parties able to readily influence their crisis behavior existed. Virtually all examination of nuclear contests therefore assumed bilateral contexts. While the United States and Soviet Union regularly intervened in regional crises in support of their allies, they used these moments primarily to compete and advance their global interests vis-à-vis the other.

The advent of regional nuclear dyads fundamentally altered the incentives for the United States and other strong powers to compete through regional proxies. The worry of second-age nuclear powers like India and Pakistan stumbling into nuclear war on their own proved overbearing. Crisis moments were now marked by the urge to ensure the absence of catastrophic escalation—above all prior policy preferences, no matter how important or urgent.

India and Pakistan are no strangers to crises. Since 1998, they have experienced at least three major and several modest bouts of high tension. Within a year of their nuclear tests, they fought a limited war in Kargil in the remote mountains of Kashmir. This was the first instance of military combat between nuclear rivals since the Sino-Soviet Ussuri River clashes in 1969. A terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, blamed on Pakistan-based militants, then brought the two militaries eyeball-to-eyeball for 10 months. In 2008, a crisis in the wake of a series of massive terrorist attacks in the Indian metropolis of Mumbai capped the first decade of overt nuclearization in South Asia. Tensions have also It sounds like a nice enough idea—remotely delivering medical treatment to soldiers in far-off combat environments. But what if a remote treatment system required soldiers to wear sensors that monitored their real-time health? What if sensors were implanted in soldiers’ bodies?

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escalated since, though not quite to the level of these crises. Notably however, in 2016, India broke from its traditional strategic restraint as it claimed to have launched surgical strikes inside Pakistani Kashmir in response to a terrorist attack on an Indian army base.

In each case, the United States and several other third-party countries—principally America’s European allies, China, Russia, and Pakistan’s Muslim country partners in the Gulf—acted as eager mediators. India and Pakistan curbed their urge for strategic independence one of their objectives for acquiring nuclear weapons—instead recognizing the costs of ignoring brokers able to tilt crisis outcomes decisively against them. American leaders acted as the information conduit between India and Pakistan and used their leverage over both sides, offering them inducements and threatening punishment, to mold their behavior desirably.

In a stark departure from competitive superpower involvement in peripheral regional theaters during the Cold War, other countries lined up behind the United States, regularly working with and assisting Washington in pursuit of de-escalation. At times, this involved coordination between the United States and its close allies down to the specific actions and statements emanating from their capitals, the timing and sequence of visits by officials from the multiple countries undertaking shuttle diplomacy, and a constant feedback loop to triangulate messages they were receiving from and relaying to India and Pakistan. Crucially, non-allies like China and Russia also readily complemented US efforts, in China’s case at the cost of shattering Pakistani expectations of partisan support in its favor.

The US-led third-party role was a key element of successful crisis management in South Asia. By acting in unison, these external actors took away India and Pakistan’s ability to pursue alternative alignment options, thereby preventing them from playing off one third party against the other. This was the norm in regional crisis settings during the Cold War, including in South Asia where US crisis leverage was dampened by India and Pakistan’s ability to offset American pressure by seeking out, respectively, the Soviet Union and China. In the post-1998 crises too, India and Pakistan maneuvered to extract maximum concessions from the third parties, but they never found room to pit the U.S. against any of the other third-party states. When they tried, their allies disappointed them by persistently reinforcing the U.S. message: de-escalation before partisan support.

Even then, these crisis moments weren’t without significant risks. There were instances of India and Pakistan misperceiving US intent and feeling wrongly emboldened to act aggressively; at other times, they contemplated escalating crises believing that the U.S. would hold their rival back; and yet other instances threatened major war because of faulty or incomplete information that led one or the other side to doubt U.S. sincerity as a broker. Ultimately though, the ability of the third parties to remain on message in prioritizing de-escalation and to avoid divisions within proved important in ensuring that South Asian crises ended without major wars.

A future different from the past? The importance of third party crisis management in South Asia has only grown over time. India and Pakistan have been unable to agree on dependable risk reduction and escalation control mechanisms with a direct bearing on crisis moments. Simulation exercises continue to point to their likely inability to terminate escalated crises.In fact, as reluctant as India and Pakistan are to admit this, they have learned from previous crisis iterations and internalized third-party roles as part of their crisis planning. Worryingly, some of their doctrines and crisis strategies assume the option of third-party bailouts.

These South Asian rivals have not ruled out conflict under the nuclear umbrella. India now boasts an operational limited war doctrine, Cold Start that envisions swift military action against Pakistan—before international actors can pressure India to forego aggression. India still hopes for third-party intervention, but to prevent Pakistan from responding to its initial salvo. On the other hand, Pakistan would want the third party to either prevent India from acting militarily in the first place or come in to pull the two sides apart only after Pakistan has responded to India’s action.

This dynamic presents a huge challenge for external mediators. These crises would unfold at an exceptionally high pace, with hours, if not minutes, between tit-for-tat responses from the two antagonists. Moreover, the implications of even modest escalation are far greater than before given the induction of destabilizing nuclear technologies on both sides. Pakistan now possesses battlefield nuclear weapons that could become relevant should the tit-for-tat use of force scenario play out past the first few rungs.

The desirability and need for constructive third-party involvement in South Asian crises remains undeniable. The ability of the external states to achieve this however is now in serious doubt. Herein lies the conundrum for future crisis management in South Asia.

Past crises in nuclear South Asia occurred in a very different global and regional environment. The unipolar moment was far less contested, as was the US appetite for and ability to take the lead in mitigating major global crises. Great power competition was not a central element of international politics. This attuned the incentives for countries to compete with the United States for prominence as crisis managers or to use crises as opportunities to further their larger security interests vis-à-vis the United States. In fact, countries like China seemed keen to transfer the burden of coordinating the crisis response in South Asia to the United States. Equally, US decisions makers—from the Clinton administration to the Obama White House—acted out of a deep sense of responsibility as leaders of the world.

The aura of unpredictability that presently surrounds US foreign policy has brought America’s willingness to act as that leader into question. Simultaneously, the precipitous decline in US relations with surging competitors like China and Russia and increasing difficulties in transatlantic relations has tempered global confidence in the ability of the great powers to operate collectively as agents of peace. International events over the past year leave no doubt about the acuteness of the challenge. Despite , the United States and Russia failed to work together to manage the Syrian conflict amicably even as Syria continued its descend into the abyss; the limits of the Sino-US relationship were tested repeatedly over the North Korea crisis and despite some recent respite in tensions, the threat of a trade war between the two looms large; and divisions between the United States and Europe have widened, crystallized most recently by the inability of America’s European allies to keep President Trump from pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal.

Recent regional developments in South Asia compound the crisis management challenge. For the first time since the Cold War, multipronged alliance structures in the region are giving way to linear relationships that are pitting great powers in Cold War-like opposing camps. The United States is actively courting India as an important partner in its Asia Pacific (now renamed Indo-Pacific strategy, in part designed to check China’s rise. In parallel, the US-Pakistan relationship has reached a breaking point over differences on developments in the war in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Pakistan and China have further solidified their alliance. China has poured over $60 billion dollars into Pakistan and now has a major stake in ensuring Pakistan’s security and stability. These hardening alliance structures could generate greater tension between alliance credibility and de-escalation considerations for the United States and China in crisis moments. India may see the level of US support for it in a future crisis with Pakistan as a litmus test of American sincerity towards New Delhi. The United States may therefore feel compelled to back India. While China has been reluctant to paint its relations with Pakistan and India as zero sum—it maintains an over $80 billion trade relationship with India — Pakistan’s expectations of China may be similar. Pakistani leaders will hope that the possibility of a US-India gang up against it and the rapidly intensifying >Sino-Indian strategic competition would force Beijing’s hand to back Islamabad fully in a crisis. Increasingly obvious Russian efforts to insert itself as a challenger to US influence in South Asia will further complicate third-party crisis management.

These developments cast a deep shadow over the ability of the third-party actors to behave constructively as crisis mediators in South Asia in the times ahead. Given the new global and regional realities, will China and Russia trust the United States to lead crisis management consensually? Would Washington operate from the same playbook it used in the past? Will it take its European allies along? If not, how would its departure from expected behavior affect crisis dynamics? Could any other state truly replace the United States as the lead crisis mediator? After all, the changing contours of global politics notwithstanding, no country comes close to matching the United States’ experience and institutional memory in cobbling together international efforts in such critical situations. Would China or Russia attempt to supplant the US role nonetheless? How would all this affect crisis stability?

Of note, the next South Asian crisis could occur at a time when the United States may not be able to act as the lead broker on its own even if it was willing to. In previous South Asian crises, US leverage over both regional rivals was never in doubt. India and Pakistan may have never fully trusted US intentions as mediator—they regularly blamed Washington for being too soft on their opponent—but they also did not have grounds to seriously question Washington’s ability to extract concessions from their rival. Their belief in the adequacy of US leverage drove their willingness to contract out crisis diplomacy to Washington. Such leverage, at a minimum, requires an active US relationship with both sides.

The present regional dynamic, however, forces one to consider the entirely realistic possibility of a complete breakdown of the US-Pakistan relationship in the near future. A crisis in such a context would necessitate a joint strategy between the United States and counterparts with influence over Pakistan—China, the U.K., and Pakistan’s Gulf allies—to nudge India and Pakistan towards de-escalation. Otherwise, uncoordinated, if not competitive, third-party intervention would be preordained. This is precisely the kind of scenario that could embolden India and Pakistan to test the strength of their partnership with their respective patrons. India could especially see this as an opportunity to entice the United States to use it as a proxy to settle scores with Pakistan.

Avoiding catastrophe. If the US ability to lead coordinated third-party crisis management proved to be the default in the early years of South Asian nuclearization, confused and competitive third-party involvement seems to be the likely possibility going forward. Should this happen, South Asia would have lost its only tested crisis management mechanism. The next crisis would represent uncharted territory and bring with it significant uncertainty.

The stakes are too high to let this be.

The surest way to avoid testing how the next bout of major escalation between India and Pakistan may evolve is to prevent it. Kashmir requires immediate attention. Serious diplomatic efforts must be initiated to encourage India and Pakistan to honor their recently reiterated commitment to the ceasefire on the Line of Control. Subsequently, the United States and others need to consider deeper engagement to encourage India and Pakistan to address the underlying disagreements and disputes that have caused the LoC to flare up in the first place.

Simultaneously, the United States, Europe, China, Russia, relevant Gulf countries, and other states with influence in South Asia should consider creating permanent contact groups dedicated to coordinating crisis strategies. This would serve to develop rapport between bureaucracies likely to be involved in crisis management. They could also work to devise protocols to isolate crisis management in nuclearized regions from the whims of broader geopolitics.

To be sure, neither of these is likely to happen without an active and positive US presence. No other ready and able substitute exists to manage tensions in South Asia. The irony is that Washington’s policy makers no longer seem willing to accept this reality. The leadership vacuum this is creating could transform third parties from being agents of de-escalation to acting as catalysts of escalation in South Asian crises. The consequences could be catastrophic.

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