India’s Assertive New Pak Policy Reflects Changing Regional Trends
Despite grave provocation from Pakistan over the last three decades, India has observed strategic restraint. (Photo: Reuters)
Despite grave provocation from Pakistan over the last three decades, India has observed strategic restraint. (Photo: Reuters)

India’s Assertive New Pak Policy Reflects Changing Regional Trends

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Strife-torn Southern Asia is the second-most unstable region in the world after West Asia.

While the region is riven by radical extremism, political instability, socio-economic challenges and ethnic tensions – exacerbated by the proliferation of small arms and narcotics trafficking – the China-India strategic competition and China’s collusion with Pakistan are key factors in the vitiated security environment.

The China-India relationship is stable at the strategic level, but marked by political, diplomatic and military instability at the tactical level. Besides the long-standing territorial dispute, transgressions across the undelineated Line of Actual Control (LAC) are frequent and often lead to a military stand-off. One of these could escalate into a short, sharp border conflict that may or may not remain localised.

India’s relations with Pakistan have been strained since both countries gained independence in 1947. The two armies are locked in confrontation on the Line of Control (LoC) over Pakistan’s efforts to wrest the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) from India. Pakistan’s deep state – the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate – sponsors terrorism as an instrument of state policy to destabilise J&K and, by extension, other parts of India. The deep state supports mercenary Jihadis recruited by terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) to wage war.

The unstable security environment in Afghanistan and along the Af-Pak border is perhaps the greatest cause of instability in Southern Asia. The strategic stalemate between the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the remnants of the US-NATO-ISAF forces on the one side and the Taliban and Pakistan-sponsored terrorist organisations like the Haqqani network on the other, is likely to endure. In fact, the Taliban are once again showing signs of resurgence and the situation could degenerate into a full-fledged civil war if it is not handled carefully.

At the Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar in December 2016, President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, snubbed Pakistan’s offer to invest $500 million for the reconstruction of his war-torn country. Indicting Pakistan in severe terms, he said the Taliban insurgency would not survive even a month if the outfit did not get sanctuary and support from Islamabad. The Afghanistan Chief of General Staff (CGS) had said as much a few years ago. The US and its allies are gradually beginning to realise that getting Pakistan to change its policy is crucial for peace and stability, but will be very difficult to achieve due to the lack of suitable leverages.

Emerging Trends in India-Pakistan Relations

Despite grave provocation from Pakistan over the last three decades, India has observed strategic restraint. Attacks on the Indian Parliament (December 2001) by LeT and JeM terrorists and multiple strikes at Mumbai (November 2008) by LeT terrorists who came in a boat from Karachi, went unpunished. The intention was to keep the level of conflict low so that the country’s economic growth was not hampered. However, attacks on the Pathankot air base in January 2016 – a week after Prime Minister Modi had made a bold, unscheduled halt at Lahore in a bid to reach out to the leadership of Pakistan – and on a military camp at Uri near the LoC in September 2016, forced the government to retaliate assertively.

Taking the Pakistan army completely by surprise, Special Forces teams of the Indian army launched multiple surgical strikes across the LoC and caused extensive damage. Since then, the army has been given a free hand by the government to respond suitably to provocations on the LoC.

The new policy is clearly that of tactical assertiveness under the umbrella of strategic restraint.

In case there is a major terrorist attack in India in the future and there is credible evidence of the involvement of the organs of the Pakistani state, military retaliation is likely.

There will be no knee-jerk reactions; the retaliation will not be time-sensitive; it will be in consonance with planned contingencies; and, will be carefully calibrated to avoid escalation.

The aim will be to raise the cost for the Pakistan army and the ISI for waging war against India through asymmetric means. With every succeeding provocation, the quantum of punishment inflicted will likely be of a higher order so as to eventually make Pakistan’s attempts to grab Kashmir prohibitive.

Another major policy shift has been in India’s negotiating posture. The Modi government has decided that India will not resume substantive negotiations with Pakistan until it convincingly stops sponsoring trans-border terrorism. There is widespread support in India for refusing to negotiate with a gun held to the head. The implication is that the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue process is now in deep freeze. The two countries have come a long way since the days of the Vajpayee-Musharraf and Manmohan Singh-Musharraf regimes ten years ago when back channel interlocutors were reported to have hammered out a four-point formula for resolving the Kashmir dispute.

The impact of the deterioration in relations is that the ‘ugly’ stability prevailing in Southern Asia has been further undermined, as a miscalculation on either side could lead to conventional conflict. While the Indian armed forces believe there is space for conventional conflict below the nuclear threshold, the belief in Western capitals is that conventional conflict between India and Pakistan has nuclear undertones and could rapidly escalate to nuclear exchanges. Pakistan’s development of tactical nuclear warheads (TNWs) and its plans to neutralise India’s superiority in conventional military forces through their early use, strengthens this belief.

The nuclear warhead-ballistic missile-military hardware collusion between China and Pakistan, described by both as an ‘all-weather friendship’, has been deepened further with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) beginning to take shape. The CPEC is part of China’s One Belt-One Road (OBOR) initiative that seeks to extend China’s strategic outreach deep into the Indo-Pacific region, give a fillip to its flagging economy by generating large-scale construction activity and create new markets for its products.

Passing through disputed territory in Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), the US$54 billion project will link Xingjian province of China with Gwadar port on the Makran coast west of Karachi. Though Pakistan is raising a division of approximately 12,000 personnel to provide security for the CPEC against terrorist attacks, eventually soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are bound to be inducted for this purpose like in Gilgit-Baltistan. The presence of PLA personnel in Pakistan in large numbers will further vitiate the security environment.

Stabilising Influence: Indo-US Strategic Partnership

The United States has been a major player in Southern Asia’s geopolitics for a long time. The growing Indo-US strategic partnership is a hedging strategy for both against what is increasingly being perceived as China’s not-so-peaceful rise given its belligerence in the South China Sea, the dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and its military build-up.

In case China behaves irresponsibly and uses military force somewhere in the Indo-Pacific or begins to implode due to its inner contradictions – undoubtedly low probability, but high-impact events – both India and the US will need a strong partner to manage the consequences.

After having been inward-looking for long, India is becoming increasingly more willing to contribute positively to peace and stability in its area of strategic interest – extending from the South China Sea in the east to the Horn of Africa in the west – and to preserving the sanctity of the global commons. The Indo-US strategic partnership will provide the nucleus for the emerging cooperative security framework for the Indo-Pacific.

The partnership is destined to rise to the next level, including joint threat assessment, joint contingency planning and joint operations when the vital national interests of both are threatened. However, continuing US support for the Pakistan army, ostensibly to insure against the possibility of nuclear warheads falling into Jihadi hands if Pakistan goes down the tubes, is a spoiler in the further growth of defence cooperation between India and the US as it injects an element of doubt in the minds of India’s policy planners.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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