This article offers a qualitative assessment of the foreign policy dimensions of India’s airstrikes on Jaish-e-Mohammed terror camps located at Balakot in Pakistan by interrogating the perspectives of the United States, China and other states. As a rising power, India seeks to protect its interests and advance its influence in global affairs, however structural constraints in South Asia have always frustrated its greater ambitions. The Balakot airstrikes marked a tectonic shift in India’s traditional attitude of restraint in favor of a daring assault inside Pakistani territory in the wake of the Pulwama terror attack, demonstrating its willingness to escalate a crisis with Pakistan. The article argues that it is vital that India acquires more hard power competencies if it wishes to play a wider and more influential role internationally.
On February 14, 2019, a homegrown suicide bomber belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) rammed his vehicle into an Indian paramilitary convoy on the national highway in the Pulwama district of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The terror attack claimed the lives of forty security personnel of India’s leading paramilitary force, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). The Pulwama massacre caused a huge outcry in India and an immediate deterioration of ties between India and Pakistan. Once a crisis-like situation is created in South Asia, Pakistan counts on its foreign policy axiom that the major powers, eager to avoid a nuclear exchange, would be forced to intervene, thereby enforcing strategic stability from outside. By the same logic, Pakistan believes that its nuclear weapons would help it control its strategic escalation.
But within two weeks of the Pulwama attack, India carried out airstrikes at the largest JeM terror camp in Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. India’s action contained significant escalatory risks. But India argued that its airstrikes were pre-emptive and ‘non-military’ as they were aimed at terrorist camps and not at Pakistani military targets.
The act was the Narendra Modi government’s attempt to redefine the policy of deterrence between India and Pakistan. Had India decided not to act decisively this time around, it would have reinforced Pakistan’s deterrence logic while giving Pakistan’s security establishment a free hand to continue launching terror strikes in India.
Right after the attack, India mounted a concerted diplomatic campaign to secure tacit support from major countries for its countermove. Many countries issued categorical statements supporting India, indicating their understanding for India’s desire to retaliate.
Theorizing the Conflict
Pakistan’s deterioration into a condition of unending political and military crisis is one of the most intractable international security issues. The persisting security dilemma generated by the India-Pakistan conflict is rooted in the politics of the Cold War. The traditional concept of security in International Relations that developed during this era included social, economic and ideological threats to security along with military concerns. In the backdrop of the nuclear arms race, the term security was narrowed down to military concerns.
One of the best explanatory theories for the Indo-Pak conflict is Barry Buzan and Ole Waever’s regional security complex. According to this framework, India, as a regional power in South Asia, shows tendencies of creating a unipolar region. But India’s regional impact remains limited due to huge capability gaps as it has not been able to play a leadership role in a comprehensive manner. Since there is no hegemonic security order in South Asia, the world powers tend to respond to India as if its “influence and capability were mainly relevant to the securitization processes” of South Asian region, thereby marginalizing India from “the higher-level calculations of system polarity” irrespective of what India thinks of itself as deserving a higher order. The major reason for the non acceptance of India’s claim for great power status is due to Pakistan’s ability to project itself as another regional pole of power. Neo-realist explanation of the India-Pakistan conflict has been offered by Rajesh Rajagopolan who argues that “the source of the India-Pakistan conflict lies in the natural imbalance of power between India and Pakistan.” In order to address this imbalance, Pakistan brought “the Cold War to South Asia by inviting external powers to the region” while acquiring military might disproportionate to its actual requirements. Despite India’s generous terms of settlement to each conflict initiated by Pakistan, the persistence of imbalance has continued to dictate Pakistan’s behavior. Given the neorealist logic, Rajagopolan believes that the resolution of many issues between India and Pakistan, particularly the Kashmir dispute, is not going to lead to conflict resolution since it would not change “the basic structure of power in South Asia.”
Criticized for its exclusive focus on great power rivalry, Realism is found to be lacking in accommodating analysis of societal factors. Mohammed Ayoob’s conceptualization of Subaltern Realism, which is presented as a modified version of Realism, is an important explanatory tool to understand the India-Pakistan conflict. By concentrating on domestic elements, Subaltern Realism attempts to address the deficiency of any theory of the state encompassed within neo-realism and its neglect of the domestic factors affecting conflict and order. International conflicts, which are seen as an extension of internal conflicts in developing countries, can be explained as a product of the process of state-making and nation-building. State-making interacts with the dynamics of the regional balance of power and the global power rivalries, which export domestic conflicts to the international system. Realist logic permeates the behavior of such states but is influenced by their subaltern status in the international system where certain norms require them to be effective in their domestic politics. However, as these states lack effective control over their own
economic resources at home, they become vulnerable to foreignintervention, which turns them into regional battlegrounds oflargerglobal confrontations. In other words, conflict gets exportedfrom major power centers to the periphery. But Amitav Acharya cautions that privileging state security may lead to the conflation of national security and regime security.
Contrary to materialist interpretations, ideationalist ones rooted in constructivism would compel our analytic gaze to take into consideration the conceptions of national identity and nationhood as powerful factors creating strong divide between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ which are not solely driven by cost-benefit calculations. Pakistan, therefore, is hostile to India not just due to India’s geographical and material size but also due to deeply ingrained conceptions of ‘self’ and ‘other’ in Pakistan’s strategic culture and security discourses. The role of identity is important to understand Pakistan’s conflict with India. Paul S. Kapur has argued that Pakistan has used the Islamic ideology of Jihad as a grand strategy against India. Jihad or support for Islamist militants has constituted a central pillar of Pakistan’s grand strategy to shape the country’s strategic environment without risking direct military confrontation with a much stronger India. Kapur asserts that Pakistan’s revisionist agenda via Islamist proxies could not have lasted longer “in a nonnuclear environment.” Pakistan’s jihad riddle cannot be solved as long as Pakistan does not alter “the nature of its national narrative, ensuring that opposition to India is no longer a central purpose of the Pakistani state.”
Benjamin Miller offers an explanation based on the concept of the state-to-nation imbalance (when regional states and the national aspirations of the peoples in the region are incongruent), by citing the example of Pakistan as a revisionist state which demands the subordination of the regional states (Afghanistan) and advocates irredentist claims to the territories of neighboring states (Kashmir in Pakistan), which undermines the internal coherence and the domestic legitimacy of the other regional states (both India and Afghanistan). He further argues that due to the presence of weak and incongruent states, South Asia will continue to show a tendency for hot civil wars and trans-border violence. E. Sridharan in his study of various IR and deterrence theories to understand the India-Pakistan conflict has concluded that if India attempts to adopt hegemonic policies vis-à-vis Pakistan, it is likely to feel frustrated due to its inability to exercise hegemony; in other words, there is a danger that India could see Pakistan achieving de-facto strategic parity due to nuclear deterrence, which might turn a “naturally” unipolar South Asia into a de-facto bipolar situation. This could result in a “huge defeat for India’s larger ambitions seen in a 50 to 100-year time frame as it remains locked into South Asia in a defensive posture.” T.V. Paul has linked Pakistan with a “garrison state” which is afflicted with some incurable “sociopolitical pathologies.” According to Paul, the Pakistani elite “has developed a Hobbesian worldview” while completely neglecting the Lockean and Kantian views on international relations. This Hobbesian worldview is an outgrowth of Pakistan’s “geostrategic curse,” a problem similar to what is often referred to as the “resource curse.”
A recent study explaining Pakistan’s policies through the concept of the national security state—which had emerged at the beginning of the Cold War with the rise of the Soviet Union as a military and ideological competitor of the United States—demonstrates that Pakistan fulfils all the parameters of such a state owing to its dependence on Realism and self-help for state survival, a façade of democratic institutions, predominance of military institutions in policymaking, constant preoccupation with enemies and restriction on public debate. Pakistan’s importance during the Cold War period and, later, in the ‘global war on terrorism’ to stabilize Afghanistan, has encouraged the outside powers, particularly the United States, to sustain various Pakistani regimes—both military and quasi-democratic—by uncritically providing economic and military aid. In this regard, American support has played a leading role in allowing the Pakistani military to consolidate a national security state, entirely focused on a perceived threat from India.Although Islamabad’s efforts to rein in the Islamists and jihadists have been less than satisfactory, Pakistan still seems irreplaceable in its role to help the United States extricate itself from its Afghan quagmire.
It is clear from the above analysis that it is neither easy nor feasible to theorize the India-Pakistan conflict because no single theoretical paradigm can do justice in explaining its complexity. It would be fair, however, to argue that the issues of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and violence that confront India need to be understood on a conceptual level that is broader in scope than realist notions of IR characterized by self-interest and power politics. Since ideational structure also plays a not-so-insignificant role in shaping the way states behave, the issues of security and terrorism have become intertwined in today’s Pakistan, where each legitimates the other. A more rigorous conceptual understanding of the structure of conflict between India and Pakistan is, therefore, required if we are keen to make sense of what has confounded both analysts and the people alike.
The aim of this article, however, is to provide visibility to the foreign policy dimension of India’s cross-border Balakot airstrikes where the diplomatic contest played itself out involving national, regional and international actors. Implicit in this narrative is the issue of punishment, perhaps the most difficult challenge before Indian policymakers. It goes without saying that the political space under examination here is global, and its contours cannot be folded into the borders of India and Pakistan.
As such, foreign policy may be termed as the “intentions, statements, and actions of an actor—often, but not always, a state—directed toward the external world and the response of other actors to these intentions, statements and actions.” In foreign policy analysis, it is crucial to identify factors, both material and ideational, that are most likely to influence foreign policy decision-making as well as decision-makers. The depth of such influence, however, is always debatable as scholarly critiques have gestured towards the impossibility of tracing all the influences on actual decision-making. In doing a foreign policy analysis of the Balakot airstrike, the most important factors that can be used as explanatory variables to understand the role of external powers, particularly the United States and China, are the combination of Pakistan’s anti-India foundational narrative, dominance of its military, and its resort to asymmetric warfare; India’s lack of favorable military options due to Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons; and the diplomatic balancing act by America and China in line with their relationship dynamics with Pakistan. In the world of foreign policy and international relations, however, the actual decisions made may not be immediately observable. Indeed, they may remain secret for years together due to national security concerns. However, based on the contemporary data in the public realm, this article argues that India’s biggest challenge is that—in the wake of a terrorist attack—a resulting Indo-Pakistan crisis generates a need for crisis management, but in the end, India’s options for conventional retaliation tend to diminish.
Getting the International Law Right
On the morning of February 26, 2019, India’s Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement claiming that the Indian Air Force had undertaken “non-military preemptive action” against a terror camp of the JeM located in Balakot. India’s actions have stirred debates relating to the legality of India’s right of self-defence against non-state actors operating out of the sovereign territory of Pakistan. The use of the term “non-military preemptive” was designed to serve some purposes vis-à-vis international legal standards and to make it clear that the target of India’s airstrikes was not Pakistan’s military or the civilian population, but the destruction of the terror camps of JeM. The term was deployedto disprove the argument that India’s actions had led to armed conflict with Pakistan with the counterargument that there was no military engagement on February 26.
The United Nations’ Charter (Chapter 7, Article 51) grants a state the right to self-defence: “Nothingin the presentCharter shall impairtheinherent rightofindividualorcollective self-defence ifanarmed attack occurs againstaMemberof the United Nations,untiltheSecurity Council has taken measuresnecessary to maintain international peaceandsecurity.” In case of an armed attack, a State can exercise the right of self-defence, explaining it as a reaction to the attack. But there are also the concepts of ‘anticipatory self-defence’ which may allow a State to act in the face of an imminent danger, and that of ‘preventive self-defence,’ which can be invoked to prevent future attacks. ‘Anticipatory self-defence’ has been a part of customary international law for a long time. But since ‘preventive self-defence’ operates in the realm of conjecture, it may have questionable legality under international law.
India’s “preemptive” strikes were undertaken in the face of imminent danger based on intelligence of JeM planning more attacks in India. The right of self-defence recognized in the UN Charter does not clarify whether it can be exercised against a non-state actor as Article 51 does not specify who the aggressor should be. But the right of self-defence against a non-state actor by the United States, Israel and Turkey, by means of cross-border use of force, has received acceptance when the host State was seen either ‘unable’ or ‘unwilling’ to deal with the threat. The host State’s inability (lack of capacity) or unwillingness (lack of political will) is seen as the foundation of preemptive self-defence doctrine under Article 51. France used the right to self-defence as the legal basis for airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria following the November 2015 Paris terror attacks but chose not to invoke the preemptive norm. Similarly, Turkey invoked the same right in order to attack Kurdistan Workers’ Party-affiliate groups in Syria without explicitly invoking the ‘unwilling or unable’ norm.
As evident by its official statement, India seems to have relied upon the preemptive norm by seeking to establish Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to dismantle JeM terror camps despite ample evidence of their existence. India’s statement tried to fulfill two important justifications: necessity and proportionality. The use of force by India was necessary since an imminent threat from JeM had to be addressed, and India’s “non-military” response was not disproportionate.
The global support or acquiescence for India’s right to self-defence after the Pulwama attack and the absence of any criticism either by the UN or other major powers to the Balakot air strike suggests the recognition of India’s right of self-defence under Article 51 against non-state actors in Pakistan. It is plausible to argue that India, being a victim of terrorism, will increasingly support a flexible and broader interpretation of the right to self-defence outside the narrow legal parameters of customary international law.
Marking a departure from its tactic of denial, Pakistan confirmed that India’s aerial strikes did take place but also claimed that it caused no loss to human life. Pakistan’s National Security Committee—the principal decision-making body on nuclear issues—vowed that “Pakistan will respond at the time and place of its choosing.” That response came the next day, February 27, with retaliatory airstrikes in India. However, the prompt retaliation by Pakistan’s air force vindicated India’s claims of the effectiveness of the strikes. When India sent out its MiG-21 Bisons, a dogfight ensued with Pakistani jets, in which one Indian MiG-21 was shot down and its pilot was captured. India, too, shot down a Pakistani jet which crashed on Pakistan’s side of the Line of Control, or LoC. Pakistan soon released the Indian pilot. Rhetoric notwithstanding, the actions of both India and Pakistan displayed significant caution to keep escalation within the non-nuclear domain. The Balakot crisis may have also ended the ambiguity about the balance of power between India and Pakistan, as the former’s military superiority was affirmed.
The American Perspective: Swings and Tilts
India had unpleasant memories of Anglo-American involvement in South Asian affairs in the late 1940s as well as early 1960s that led to bolstering Pakistan’s hand. In order to placate Pakistan, the United States and the United Kingdom persuaded India to discuss the Kashmir issue with Pakistan. Six rounds of talks were held in December 1962 and May 1963 but they did not produce any result. From the Indian perspective, third-party involvement, first in the form of the United Nations, and then American and British engagement, was unsatisfactory and unnecessary. Because of Cold War geopolitical considerations, India felt that world powers opposed India’s position while favoring Pakistan. The Simla Agreement signed byIndia and Pakistan in 1972 placed limits on the escalation of the conflict. And while India has shunned third-party involvement on Kashmir, Pakistan has continued to internationalize it. With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the United States chose to bolster Pakistan’s military capabilities, thereby eroding India’s conventional superiority. Though unwilling to dilute its security ties with Pakistan, the United States still found ways to entice India by dangling the possibility of India’s access to dual-use technology items from the United States on a selective basis.Meaningful Indo-U.S. rapprochement remained elusive till the end of the Cold War because of the limited scope of Indo-U.S. ties, and differences over how to deal with Pakistan.
Washington’s diplomatic engagement with Islamabad during the Kargil conflict in May to July 1999 was credited with averting a wider war in South Asia. President Bill Clinton had personally pressurized Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif to withdraw Pakistan’s forces from Indian positions during his crucial meeting with Sharif at Blair House in Washington on July 4, refusing to receive Sharif at the White House.
Over the last two decades, the United States has grown closer to India while relations with Pakistan continue to be marred by mistrust. Except for a brief period during the first Obama presidency when the special Af-Pak envoy, Richard Holbrooke, attempted to interlink the American approach to Afghanistan with the Kashmir issue, effectively hyphenating India and Pakistan,the South Asia policy of the United States has continued to swing in the direction of de-hyphenation and a tilt toward India.
A day after the attack by JeM in Uri (in J&K) on September 18, 2016, then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned terrorism, while also cautioning both India and Pakistan against escalation. In conversations with her Indian counterpart AjitDoval, the U.S. National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, reportedly said that America “expects that Pakistan take effective action to combat and delegitimize United Nations-designated terrorist individuals and entities, including Lashkar-e-Taiba [LeT],Jaish-e-Muhammad, and their affiliates.” This was interpreted as tacit American acceptance of India’s actions. If the U.S. crisis-management priority during December 2008 was to convince the Indian leadership not to respond militarily after the Mumbai carnage, the absence of such pressure during the Uri crisis was a clear shift in the U.S. priority.
If Pakistan, therefore, expected the United States to persuade India to exercise similar restraint after the Pulwama attack in 2019 (since Islamabad was playing the key role in helping the U.S. president, Donald Trump, execute his withdrawal strategy in Afghanistan), it was bound to feel disappointed. During the Pulwama crisis, the United States played a reduced role than it traditionally does in Indo-Pakistani conflicts. Following the Pulwama bombing, a White House statement asked Pakistan to “end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil,” and that the incident “only strengthens our resolve” to tighten Indo-U.S. counterterrorism cooperation. President Trump indicated that India was “looking at something very strong,” implying that an Indian retaliation was both imminent and justifiable, and the U.S. national security adviser, John Bolton, was supportive of India’s right to self-defense against terrorism. These comments could be seen as giving tacit approval to India’s airstrikes that followed. The U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, waited until India’s response to issue a formal statement. After talking to his counterparts in India and Pakistan, Pompeo described the airstrikes as “counter-terrorism actions.” While urging de-escalation by avoiding further military action, he underlined “the urgency of Pakistan taking meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil.” Later, the Pakistani Ambassador to Washington, Asad Khan, seemed to complain that Pompeo’s response to India’s airstrike was “construed and understood as an endorsement of the Indian position, and that is what emboldened them even more.” There is sufficient ground to believe that the Trump administration’s public support for India’s right to self-defense after the Pulwama attack was extraordinary.
Although Pakistan denied that its F-16 aircraft was downed by the Indian aircraft, India exhibited parts of an Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) missile, which is normally carried by an F-16. It was claimed by an Indian observer that despite the evidence, the United States chose to overlook the use of an F-16 in violation of end-use assurances because it was not possible for Washington to pressurize Pakistan beyond a point, given its dependence on the Pakistan army for its dialogue with the Taliban in Doha. Since any escalation of hostilities could harm America’s larger objectives in South Asia, the United States was probably not willing to encourage “India to go beyond letting off steam.”
Yet, the White House sends confusing signals from time to time. While answering questions from the media alongside the prime minister, Imran Khan, in the White House on July 22, 2019, Trump claimed that Modi had asked him to play a mediatory role in resolving the Kashmir issue. But since such a request would represent a dramatic shift in India’s traditional policy, Trump’s public statement provoked a hue and cry in India’s domestic political circles, with opposition parties demanding an explanation from the Modi government. India’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, had to assure Indian politicians that India did not make such a request, reiterating New Delhi’s position that “all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally” and future engagement with Islamabad “would require an end to cross-border terrorism.” In order to avoid further controversy, the State Department also clarified that “Kashmir is a bilateral issue for both parties to discuss” and the Trump Administration “stands ready to assist.” The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Eliot Engel, supported “the longstanding U.S. position” on Kashmir being a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan while asking Islamabad to facilitate such dialogue by taking “concrete and irreversible steps to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure on Pakistan’s soil.” During a meeting between Pompeo and Jaishankar on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Thailand on August 2, 2019, India again conveyed to the United States that any discussion on Kashmir, “if at all warranted,” would be between India and Pakistan alone.
Every tilt, however, is matched by an equal swing. Trump’s seemingly warm reception of Imran Khan, and his desire that Pakistan should help the United States extricate itself from Afghanistan, has led to some disquiet in New Delhi. One of India’s primary anxieties arising out of Washington’s policy direction in Afghanistan, as well as its apparent attempts to re-hyphenate India and Pakistan, may have contributed to India’s move to scrap Article 370 and change Kashmir’s legal status. Despite India’s continued attempts to publicly deny any third party role, and to negate any attempt by Pakistan to internationalize the Kashmir issue, Trump has repeatedly offered to mediate in Kashmir,and an escalation of Indo-Pakistani tensions may put India in an uncomfortable position. Most importantly, should Trump be defeated in the 2020 presidential election by a Democrat, the diplomatic risks to India will likely increase.
The Chinese Perspective: Reasons and Seasons
India and Pakistan are not the only actors in the dispute involving Jammu and Kashmir. The region is split among India, Pakistan and China. The territory of Jammu and Kashmir under Pakistani and Chinese control comprises the spoils of different conflicts waged by them against India. On the Indian side, Ladakh—the region which has now been separated from Jammu and Kashmir—has contested borders with China’s politically sensitive Xinjiang province and Tibet. A dispute over these borders had led to war in 1962 in which India was defeated by China. Although India enjoys unequivocal conventional military superiority over Pakistan, the favorable equation gets somewhat diminished by tactical considerations on the Indo-Pak border, and New Delhi’s necessity to defend against a potential attack from China.
Pakistan’s all-weather friendship with China has been very useful for not just political reasons but also strategic ones; the China-Pakistan nexus has resulted in Beijing transferring designs of nuclear weapons and missile technologies, which allowed Islamabad to acquire nuclear capabilities. While the prospect of Beijing’s military intervention in an India-Pakistan conflict appears distant, China has often provided diplomatic help to Pakistan in its disputes with India. Notwithstanding its alliance-like relationship with Pakistan, China has publicly been supportive of India’s stance that the Kashmir issue is for the two countries to resolve bilaterally. It is not in Beijing’s interest to see a full-blown war on its doorstep.
The Chinese role in conveying messages to Pakistan during crises is particularly noteworthy. Diplomatic coordination between Washington and Beijing was important during the Kargil crisis. When prime minister Sharif went to Beijing in July 1999 to seek expressions of support from China, he had to come back largely disappointed. During the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Beijing called for both sides to show restraint. A month after the Mumbai attacks, China even supported a UNSC application to designate the Pakistan-based leader of the LeT, Hafiz Saeed, as a global terrorist. However, after the inauguration of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 2015, despite India’s objections, China’s Kashmir approach is likely to witness a gradual shift with the implication that Beijing has developed significant financial stakes in the contested region.
China has signaled Pakistan that it cannot forever defend the indefensible. During the surgical strikes by the Indian Army in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in September 2016—eleven days after the Uri terror attack—China’s reaction came two days after Pakistan sent two special envoys on Kashmir to Beijing to garner support for its position. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson,Geng Shuang, was quoted as saying that “as shared neighbour and friend,” China was “concerned about continuous confrontation and tensions between India and Pakistan,” and urged the “relevant parties to exercise restraint and refrain from actions that would escalate tension.” But in a highly controversial report in the Dawn newspaper about a tense meeting between civilian and military leaders of Pakistan, it was suggested that Beijing privately indicated to the civilian leadership that China would not be able to shield Pakistan from international censure indefinitely.
Pakistan’s foreign policy options are being squeezed, with its all-weather ally, China, reluctant to support it in all crises, and its major aid provider, United States, proving even more reluctant to support it particularly after the Balakot confrontation. Pakistan has, therefore, held multiple meetings with Chinese officials in search of an alternative, but Beijing did not align against American diplomacy in urging de-escalation.
China’s diplomatic balancing act, however, did not disappoint Pakistan completely. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, delivered a message of restraint to both the Indian external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj—who was visiting China for a Russia-India-China (RIC) summit in February 2019—and to the Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, in phone conversations. Wang criticized the “breeding grounds of terrorism” in his meeting with Swaraj. The RIC joint statement also expressed a common strategy for countering terrorism. But during his phone conversation with Qureshi, Wang expressed China’s view that countries should respect territorial sovereignty. In an apparent reference to the Balakot airstrikes, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Lu Kang, declared that “China believes that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected. We oppose any practices that violate the UN Charter and the norms of international law.”
It is noteworthy that a forum where China’s diplomatic backing has appeared most useful for Pakistan is at the UN Security Council. As global condemnation for the Pulwama attack came in swiftly, India thought it prudent to step up its diplomatic efforts to get the JeM chief, Masood Azhar, branded a global terrorist, a demand consistently blocked by China at the UNSC. Active against India for around two decades, spreading terrorism and causing socio-political instability in Jammu and Kashmir, the JeM took the responsibility for carrying out the Pulwama attack. India’s request to the UNSC Sanctions Committee, also known as 1267 Committee, to designate Azhar a terrorist had been repeatedly vetoed by China in 2009, 2016, 2017, and in March 2019. China is the only country on the UNSC to oppose Azhar’s inclusion in a UN blacklist of terrorist individuals, entities, organizations, and groups.
The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, did express his condolences after the Pulwama attack, while stressing that terrorism remained the common enemy of mankind. His remarks, however, neither mentioned the JeM nor Azhar, much less Pakistan. Despite China’s stonewalling tactics, India did not give up its efforts. It had also become difficult for China to withstand growing international pressure to designate Azhar a global terrorist. China feared that if the United States carried out its threat to take the issue of designatingAzhar directly before the UNSC, it would be forced to place its objections on the record. Chinese diplomats soon realized that supporting a notorious terrorist was no longer advantageous. Eventually, the UN Sanctions Committee designated Azhar a global terrorist in May 2019, after China removed its ten-year ‘hold’ on the designation. Regardless of Chinese acquiescence on Azhar, there is no evidence that Beijing would persuade Pakistan not to shelter terrorist groups that target India, which is a strategy driven by China’s geopolitical rivalry with India, while at the same time China would do whatever it takes to eliminate terrorists that threaten security in its own restive provinces.
The role of international pressure—and worries over global reaction—were critical in securing the release of the Indian MiG pilot. Although Pakistan maintained that its decision to release the pilot in the aftermath of India’s airstrikes was a “gesture of goodwill and peace,” and there was no official comment from the Indian government about third-party help, this article argues that the pilot was released because of possible back-channel diplomatic effortsby the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) whose leaders persuaded Pakistan, amid growing concern that the pilot’s further captivity in Pakistan would only escalate the conflict. That Saudi Arabia and the UAE played a role in de-escalation became apparent when the Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, was invited as a guest of honour at the 46th meeting of the foreign ministers of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) in Abu Dhabi on March 1, 2019, immediately after India’s airstrikes. The invitation demonstrated the OIC’s goodwill towards India which was neither a member of the OIC nor had observer status. An astonished Pakistan boycotted the meeting.
Red Lines: Can They Be Crossed?
India has maintained political and territorial status-quo in Jammu and Kashmir for more than seven decades, despite repeated provocations from Pakistan. The Indian position has been interpreted by Pakistan as India’s fear of a potential nuclear exchange between them. There are some unmistakable signals—in the post Balakot airstrikes—that the Modi government seeks to redraw India’s own redlines in its engagement with Pakistan as India is probably confident of its second-strike capability to erase Pakistan’s nuclear redline. The contours of the new Indian redlines is seen in India obliterating Jammu & Kashmir’s special status, seriously questioning Pakistan’s occupation of Gilgit-Baltistan, as well as raising the cost of making any diplomatic intervention by any country or international organization in Kashmir extremely prohibitive. The primary purpose is to let the old redlines recede into the fog of history, to be replaced in contemporary political consciousness by new redlines. However, modest optimism is justified on this score as there seems to be no strong reason yet to believe that shifting the goalposts will be more successful now than in the past.
In the first week of August 2019, the Modi government dramatically announced the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that granted the state of Jammu & Kashmir special rights within the Indian Union, as well as bifurcation of the state into two Union Territories—Jammu & Kashmir, and Ladakh. The move marked a sharp break from a long-held understanding between India and Pakistan that their composite dialogue would feature both terrorism and Kashmir as primary issues of discussion. India wants to convey that the only issue to discuss is terrorism since Jammu & Kashmir is now an internal matter.
Islamabad has bitterly opposed the Indian move, raising it in all possible international platforms. The prime minister, Imran Khan, has himself led a vigorous diplomatic campaign to seek global support to put pressure on India to revoke the decision. In order to internationalize the Kashmir issue, the Pakistani foreign minister,Shah Mahmood Qureshi,went to Beijing in August 2019 to seek China’s support. A Chinese spokesperson, in turn, criticized India’s move of making Ladakh a separate union territory to be administered directly from New Delhi, stating that it “challenged China’s sovereign interest.” Beijing did not hesitate in tabling the Kashmir issue at the UNSC after almost half a century: the UNSC had not discussed the Kashmir issue since the 1972 Simla Agreement between India and Pakistan. But the informal and closed-door consultations lasted over an hour on August 16, 2019 and most UNSC members believed that there was no need to issue any statement or outcome after the consultations. China, however, faces a dilemma stemming from Imran Khan’s interference in Kashmir through a combination of diplomatic maneuvering and ethno-nationalist polemics.
The relationship between Asia’s two largest countries could worsen, if India’s actions in Kashmir cross China’s red lines. Several Indian government ministers have talked about reclaiming Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, posing a direct threat to Gilgit-Baltistan (the only land bridge between China and Pakistan), as well as scuttling the CPEC which is a vital component of the Belt and Road Initiative.
The Modi government has explained its actions in Kashmir to the global community. During Modi’s week-long visit to the United States in September 2019, the Indian prime minister held a series of bilateral meetings with world leaders as well as at the UN in New York to stave off Pakistan’s diplomatic challenge. In October 2019, New Delhi facilitated the ‘private’ visit of more than 20 members of European Parliament to Kashmir. In January 2020, a special visit of envoys of 15 countries based in India, including those of the United States, was arranged, during which they interacted with select political representatives, civil society members, and top military commanders in J&K. Whether the Modi government’s plan to regain control over the Kashmir narrative succeeded or not is an altogether different question. On the one hand, India tried its best to persuade the global community that its efforts to make certain changes in the legal architecture in the volatile Kashmir region deserved a chance. On the other hand, Imran Khan raised the Kashmir issue at all his public appearances in the United States, and also hinted that tensions between India and Pakistan could trigger a nuclear exchange if the world failed to intervene. Though Trump has not taken up Khan’s demand for mediation, the former is expected to keep raising the issue.
Since Kashmir has been the most important issue for the Pakistan army, which is the principal decisionmaker, India cannot underestimate Pakistan’s resolve in using the issue of human rights to annoy and embarrass India globally. The negative international news coverage of India’s moves in Kashmir has focused on themes ranging from quashing of Kashmiri human rights and the risk of nuclear conflict, to the threat to India’s federalism and the rise of a muscular nationalism. Islamabad’s determination and desperation is likely to keep Kashmir simmering as a diplomatic headache for India. Since Pakistan’s incentive to pursue cross-border terrorism lies in keeping the Indian military tied down in Kashmir, it has no incentive to allow India to alter the basic terms of the strategic interaction between them.
India’s attempts to isolate Pakistan on the issue of terrorism should be tempered with caution. Pakistan’s geopolitical importance to major world powers has ensured a constant flow of financial and military resources that is not likely to abate in the near future. While international opinion may be turned against Pakistan for its flirtation with jihadist forces, the major world powers would not push beyond a limit a nuclear weapons’ state engulfed with a rising Islamist tide and several terrorist outfits operating in its territory. The United States continues to believe that Pakistani brokerage is essential in the negotiations that it is conducting with the Taliban for a face-saving exit from Afghanistan.
Another challenge confronting India relates to the politicization of global counterterrorism mechanisms. The war on terror, led by the United States, has not succeeded in achieving its objectives mainly because it has become a geopolitical tool. For instance, the Trump administration recently imposed terrorism-related sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and certain Iranian individuals. In the first week of January 2020, President Trump even ordered the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s second most powerful official and the leader of the Quds Force, in a drone attack in Baghdad.But no such sanctions or assassinations have ever been ordered against Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Furthermore, the Chinese commitment to Pakistan seems to be much greater today than it was a decade earlier due to the growing significance of the CPEC. The Chinese cannot do without Pakistani cooperation to secure their interests. Though some Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not been supportive of Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, Turkey and Malaysia have been critical of India’s move.
It remains to be seen how the decisionmakers in the Modi government come up with policies to deter Pakistan’s sub-strategic aggression in future. When India’s then army chief and the current Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, said that India would not just “repeat” the Balakot strike but would do “something beyond that,” he was signaling that India would respond to Pakistani provocation with more stringent military reaction. Supporting Rawat’s views, India’s new air force chief, Rakesh Bhadauria, has said that airstrikes at Balakot represent new “resolve of the political leadership to punish the perpetrators of terrorism” as well as “a major shift in the government’s way of handling terrorist attacks.”
The Indian No First Use (NFU) stance on the use of nuclear weapons may be revised in the future. So far, India has avoided triggering escalation with Pakistan to the nuclear level, which has played into the strategic advantage of the Pakistan army. India has also maintained, time and again, that its nuclear weapons are intended to deter other countries’ use of nuclear weapons against India. When Imran Khan and his ministers deliberately made references to nuclear conflict in South Asia, the Indiandefence minister, Rajnath Singh, asserted that “India has strictly adhered to this doctrine [no-first-use]. What happens in the future depends on the circumstances.” This kind of rationale may be a reflection of a broader policy shift. Modi had raised the issue in an election campaign in April 2019 when he said that Pakistan “used to say ‘we have a nuclear button, we have a nuclear button’. What do we have then? Have we kept it for Diwali?” Modi’s statement reminds us of what Pakistan’s defense minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, had said at the time of the 2016 Uri crisis: “Tactical weapons, our programmes that we have developed, they have been developed for our protection. We haven’t kept the devices that we have just as showpieces.” While Modi’s statement could be rhetoric to appease voters at the time of elections, Rajnath Singh’s recent statement carries some weight. Given the fact that the Modi government has shown willingness to take risks, as reflected in the Balakot airstrikes and the abrogation of Article 370, it is a plausible argument that Pakistan’s nuclear red lines may not be as sacrosanct as they once might have been.
India and Pakistan are unlikely to cross the nuclear threshold. The principle of mutually assured destruction that held the United States and the Soviet Union away from nuclear war, applies in the India-Pakistan case too. Rhetoric apart, no sane politician in both the countries would want to launch a suicidal nuclear strike. However, it needs to be kept in mind that India’s NFU policy has acted as a kind of assurance for Pakistan that India would not attack first, which also allows the latter to choose the strategy of not attacking. Concomitant with some changes in India’s nuclear arsenal, if the Indian government decides to formally abandon the NFU policy, it will inject an element of huge uncertainty into the Indo-Pak dynamic. In such a scenario, when there is deterioration in ties in future, Pakistan will be uncertain of India’s actions. Being skeptical of winning a conventional military strike/war, Pakistan might be tempted to use nuclear weapons at the very beginning of the conflict, destabilizing the nuclear status quo in South Asia.
Growing China-Pakistan alliance adds another dimension to India’s terrorism problem, and India is yet to find a way to deal with the challenge of a potential war on two fronts. Partnered with China, Pakistan has been using its nuclear weapons as a cover for helping terrorists mount attacks against India. Pakistan’s shorter interior lines of communication help it mobilize its forces more rapidly. Indian military strategists are yet to figure out how India would face the challenge of the worst scenario of a joint military attack by China and Pakistan. The Chinese have deployed their military in PoK as part of the CPEC. As some Indian scholars have argued, this has further complicated India’s challenge of waging a two-front war since India’s offensive strikes against Pakistani targets could also inadvertently strike Chinese troops and civilians based in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, and this, in turn, could trigger Chinese retaliation against India.
A Post-Covid-19 Scenario
Experience suggests that regional and global crises create political opportunities for embracing change. The Covid-19 crisis has generated an intense discussion about the consequences of the still unfolding crisis on the regional order, particularly on the India-Pakistan relationship. Regional cooperation among all the South Asian countries will be necessary if they are keen to reduce the further spread of the coronavirus, and to curtail the worst effects of the economic recession that is already underway. But due to fundamental problems in India-Pakistan relations, regional cooperation is possibly at its weakest in the present circumstances, when the need for it is more dire than ever before.
The Covid-19 crisis presents a remarkable opportunity to both the countries to change entrenched mindsets and shun securitization of their foreign policies while focusing on human development. Prime minister Modi seized this opportunity when he suggested that the initiative led by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to deal with the gravity of threats emanating from the pandemic. On March 15, 2020 Modi announced the SAARC Covid-19 Emergency Fund following a video-conference with all the South Asian leaders. The Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, was the only regional leader to skip the e-meet, but his special health advisor, Zafar Mirza, took part. When India made a voluntary contribution of US$ 10 million to the fund, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Afghanistan also contributed. But Pakistan kept dilly-dallying for some time, and it was the last SAARC nation to pledge US$ 3 million to the fund with many riders attached. In April 2020, Pakistan’s non-cooperative attitude was again reflected when it decided not to participate in a video conference of senior SAARC trade officials who deliberated on creating a larger framework of trade facilitation to counter the adverse impact of the pandemic in the region, arguing instead that the SAARC secretariat was not involved in the process.
Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic has not prevented the Pakistani establishment from fishing in Kashmir’s troubled waters; it has lent support for the creation of a militant outfit named “The Resistance Front”(TRF), which has taken the centrestage in the Kashmir valley with its involvement in several encounters with security forces. It is believed that the TRF is nothing but a front of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Since the LeT and JeM have religious connotations, Pakistan’s strategy is to rebrand existing terror groups as non-religious and to make the Kashmir insurgency appear indigenous in character. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the terror groups in the Kashmir valley have not vanished. In recent months, shelling across the LoC has been attributed to attempts by Pakistan at cross-border infiltration.
Post-Covid-19, on the one hand, India’s relations with China also have not shown any visible signs of improvement even as China’s pursuit of influence in the region continues unabated despite the pandemic. On the other hand, both Pakistan and China will continue to stick together as they stand to benefit from the relationship. As rightly argued that due to the opaqueness with which Beijing opted to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, China’s “image as a reliable partner has suffered a huge detent. Neither aid diplomacy nor the unleashing of Chinese soft power can easily recover the trust deficit that exists today between China and much of the rest of the world.” Keeping in view the growing backlash against Beijing, the China-Pakistan mutual dependence is likely to grow further. Pakistani leaders would be tempted to believe that Islamabad might get more out of Beijing on the military, economic and diplomatic fronts by throwing in their lot with China, even as the latter feels the diplomatic heat from across the world. In this scenario, New Delhi cannot expect China to show any consideration for India’s core interests vis-à-vis Pakistan.
There are some broad inferences to be drawn. First, the targeting of the leaders of terrorist organizations requires continuous strikes inside Pakistan, where they find shelter by the courtesy of the intelligence agencies. Even if such strikes were logistically possible, the assassination of terrorist leaders alone does not guarantee an end to terror attacks on India, as both the United States and Israel can bear out.
Secondly, as India tries to make its presence felt at the international level, China remains reluctant to acknowledge India’s rise. Due to current geopolitical realities, India needs to adopt a more sophisticated approach to bring pressure to bear on Islamabad. The United States and China seem to be aligned regarding the need to ensure crisis de-escalation in nuclear South Asia, but it is difficult to predict their future behavior. Due to the changing nature of India’s relationship with the United States, China may reassess its priorities in South Asia which will have an impact on crisis diplomacy. If they develop divergent views on how, and when, the crisis should be resolved, India’s challenges are likely to multiply.
Thirdly, the United States and China need to recognize that in the current environment dialogue between India and Pakistan alone will not address the entrenched grievances that drive the Pakistan military’s hostility toward India. Before a peace settlement between the two countries could be finalized, the Pakistan military needs to be pressed to cease supporting terrorist infrastructure in its territory. As long as the Pakistani security establishment does not realize that its relentless revisionism threatens to destabilize not only India, but Pakistan itself, there is no guarantee that a terrorist strike in India would not escalate into full blown crisis. The international community must avoid reinforcing Pakistan’s risky behavior through a futile call for dialogue.
The major conclusion of the above analysis is that the conceptualization and implementation of India’s foreign policy are yet to be fully aligned. It is clear that India’s Pakistan and terrorism problems are unlikely to go away anytime soon, and India will need to find effective means of managing the challenge. In its second term, the Modi government must focus more on how to operationalize India’s intent to punish the perpetrators of terrorism into concrete policy outcomes. This will inevitably involve creating an institutional framework for long-term strategic thinking, along with strengthening the diplomatic and military building blocks of India’s comprehensive national power.
Vinay Kaura is an Assistant Professor in the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, a university under the Department of Home, Government of Rajasthan, India. As the Coordinator of University’s Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies, his major responsibility is to teach as well as coordinate executive training and research programmes on security studies and counterterrorism for India’s mid-level police professionals belonging to state and central paramilitary organizations. He is also an adjunct faculty on the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies (PTSS) at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany. He has a Masters’ degree in both History and Political Science, and a PhD degree on Afghanistan-Pakistan relations with special reference to Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. His research interests are counterterrorism, counter insurgency, de-radicalization, political warfare, geopolitics of Indo-Pacific, Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, and conflict resolution in Kashmir. Some of his recent publications are “Indo-Israeli Relations in the Modi Era: A Transformative Shift,” in Israel Affairs; “India-U.S. Relations: From Distant Partners to an Alliance,” Parameters, U.S. Army War College Quarterly; “India’s Changing Relations with Russia: Challenges and Convergences,” RUSI Journal; “Russia’s Changing Relations with Pakistan and Taliban: Implications for India,” Jadavpur Journal of International Relations; “The Modi Government’s Policy on Israel: The Rhetoric and Reality of De-hyphenation,” Strategic Assessment; “China’s South Asia Policy under Xi Jinping: India’s Strategic Concerns,” Central European Journal of International and Security Studies; and “Building the Resilience of India’s Internal Security Apparatus,” ORF Occasional Papers. His opinion pieces and commentaries have appeared in leading newspapers.
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