Social media-generated sabre rattling not withstanding, there's little chance of actual military conflict between the two nuclear-armed adversaries
India and Pakistan are not going to have a nuclear Armageddon anytime soon despite the media noise and social media sabre rattling. For the last few weeks, a series of opinion pieces in various American papers appear to be focusing on the potential for armed or nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan. The latest report by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has helped to add fuel to the existing fire, as have reports over India’s recently conducted joint covert operations against insurgents with its eastern neighbour Myanmar. A form of surrealism seems to have overtaken reports on India and Pakistan.
Two recent articles have discussed the possibility of India and Pakistan heading towards an armed conflict. One of them focuses on the social media generated sabre rattling between Indians and Pakistanis after Indian special forces conducted a successful joint operation against insurgents based in Myanmar. It appears as though the writers are ignorant of history India and Pakistan indulge in such brinkmanship on an annual basis.
Another article asserts closer ties between India and the United States, especially in the defence field, will lead to a nuclear war in the subcontinent. There is mention of potential military sales and deeper cooperation with India but there is no mention of the recent (or historic) military sales to Pakistan. The argument made is that such US actions will “antagonise Pakistan” even though the aim is to counter China. One is left wondering if the author has any real understanding of the region, of ties between US, Pakistan and India as his arguments remind one of the views of Pakistani leaders like Generals Ayub or Musharraf.
US policy towards South Asia during the Cold War era was referred to as off-shore balancing by analysts. This policy hurt not just American interests but also the region itself.
The original sin of US policy in South Asia was the arming of Pakistan’s military in its impossible quest of achieving parity with India. As I explain in my book (Escaping India: Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy) Pakistan sought a superpower ally to provide economic and military aid to stand up to the perceived existential threat from India. In this quest, as an American Cold War ally Pakistan benefitted from American military and economic largesse. As pointed out in a recent book (Husain Haqqani’s Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States and an Epic History of Misunderstanding) American military aid hurt Pakistan both domestically (creating a civil military imbalance) but also in international affairs where Pakistan indulged in delusions of grandeur.
While the US provided India with some military and economic aid even during the Cold War, the two countries remained estranged and never built deep ties. The post Cold War world with the growth of Indian economic and military power has led to a defining relationship between these two democracies.
US interests in South Asia will benefit when there are closer economic and political ties between the countries of the region. The best way for that to happen is to leave it to the countries of the region. Even though South Asia is the least economically integrated region of the world things have changed in the last few years with almost all countries understanding the benefit of closer connectivity and trade.
Every Indian prime minister starting with Jawaharlal Nehru believed ties with neighbours were of paramount importance but their focus was primarily security. It is only in recent years that Indian leaders have understood the need to economically integrate the region. India may be building her military potential but her primary goal is economic growth and development for the foreseeable future.
India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed countries adversaries. The civilian leaders in both countries have understood that closer ties will benefit both countries. Indian leaders hope that sooner or later the law of economics will convince Pakistani leaders to follow their Afghan, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, Nepali, Burmese and Nepalese counterparts in working towards economic integration. However, for that the Pakistani military intelligence establishment would have to give up on its quest for economic and military parity with India and its policy of using jihadis to achieve foreign and security policy goals.
This piece was originally featured on the DailyO