By Alade Fawole
The phrase, sleepwalking into a war, is adapted from Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, the account of how, not why, the First World War began. It is appropriate at this time as the world may be inching towards a nuclear war. Though no one has used a nuclear weapon in actual combat since the US exploded two bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 to end the Second World War, the world did come close to nuclear Armageddon several times. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the US and the then Soviet Union dragged the world dangerously close to the edge of the nuclear precipice. In more recent times, US President Donald Trump had threatened North Korea with total annihilation, according to him, because he has a bigger nuclear button than Kim Jung-Un. Mercifully, a nuclear showdown may have been averted on the Korean Peninsula since Kim’s “love letters” to Trump, but the same cannot be said of the South China Sea, where the US and China are currently flexing their military muscles. Our focus is to a different corner of the globe: first, Kashmir, the contested territory between India, Pakistan and China; and second, to Sino-Indian face-offs.
Kashmir, bitterly contested and heavily militarized territory, is a flashpoint for possible military confrontation between India and Pakistan, two most acrimonious nuclear-armed neighbours. Add the recent bloody India-China border skirmishes and what you get is a highly combustible situation. The bitterness between India and Pakistan has endured since their partitioning by the British in 1947 and the failure to resolve claims of sovereignty over Kashmir. Since then both have exercised sovereignty over separate portions of the disputed territory. What makes the territorial dispute more contentious is that the India-administered portion of Kashmir is overwhelmingly populated by Pakistan-supported Muslims who hate Hindu India with a passion. China also lays claim to a smaller portion in the northeast corner. Also remarkable is that not only have India and China fought wars, but also that India and Pakistan have fought at least two wars, and have recorded several border skirmishes over their respective claims to Kashmir.
Remarkably, not only are all the rival claimants’ contiguous neighbours and bitter geopolitical rivals, but they are also armed with weapons of mass destruction. Currently, four of the nine countries with nuclear weapons are proximate neighbours in Asia (China, India, Pakistan and North Korea), with three of them claiming parts of Kashmir. Kashmir is thus the dangerous booby trap that British colonialism left behind in that part of Asia. Of recent, there have been new rounds of vitriolic verbal jousts and military muscle-flexing, first between India and Pakistan after India’s unilateral revocation of the autonomy and special status enjoyed by India-occupied Kashmir, which is stoking antagonistic nationalistic fervour against what Pakistanis perceive as burgeoning Hindu exceptionalism, and secondly now between China and India over their common border on the Himalayas. If you add Donald Trump’s seeming pivot towards India and face-off with China to the toxic mix, the situation becomes even more precarious. Instead of mediating the crisis, Trump is deploying military assets near the region in a show of support for India against China.
Unfortunately, the attention of the other major powers is currently fixated on surviving the Covid-19 pandemic and its devastating consequences; Britain is facing an uncertain post-Brexit future; other distractions include US-China trade war, US-Russia stand-off over Venezuela, Iran and the Middle East. All seem splendidly detached from the multidimensional disputes between India, Pakistan and China in that volatile corner of Asia. This is extremely dangerous, going by the flammable geopolitical scenario in that region. India and China are the two most populous countries in Asia, large economies and with formidable military capabilities to boot, who have fought wars in the past. Their relationship remains suffused with suspicion and rivalry. Indo-Pakistan relations too have rarely been friendly since their bitter separation at independence, and both have often resorted to mutual sabre-rattling in their political and territorial disagreements. India, not incorrectly so, always accuses Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism against it. China often seeks to manipulate Indo-Pakistani disagreements to attempt cutting India to size. Both China and Pakistan are bitterly opposed to India’s aspiration for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.
Why, in spite of the volatile geopolitical setting in that region of three nuclear-armed countries, is the rest of the world pretending that all is well? It doesn’t feature seriously on Trump’s incoherent foreign policy agenda. Even the G-7 meeting of the world’s greatest economic powers gave it a wide berth in spite Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan’s warning of possible bloodbath because of India’s actions over Kashmir. He had hinted darkly at UN that “If a conventional war starts, anything could happen. But supposing a country seven times smaller than its neighbour is faced with a choice: either you surrender or you fight for your freedom till death. We will fight and when a nuclear-armed country fights to the end it will have consequences beyond its borders, it will have consequences for the world”. Yet, no one seems to care. After the killing of Indian soldiers during most recent border skirmishes with China, Prime Minister Narenda Modi vowed their death would not be in vain, a hint at possible escalation of Indo-China dispute.
Is the world, by ignoring the spats between these adversarial neighbours, not inexorably inching towards conflicts that may involve catastrophic exchange of nuclear weapons? Is this deliberate or are we in a stupor, sleepwalking into what is clearly a preventable nuclear holocaust? The uncomfortable truth is that, left unattended by the powerful members of the international community, the current mutual acrimony between India and Pakistan, and between China and India, risks escalating into the use of nuclear weapons. This is because misperceptions, mutual suspicions, miscalculations and errors of judgement have been known to trigger needless wars and military confrontations. By not treating rival Indo-Pakistani and China-India territorial claims with the seriousness they deserve, the world may sleepwalk into a nuclear showdown. It is avoidable, if only the great powers of the world would refuse to take sides in the territorial disputes.
One thing is certain: the size of a country’s nuclear arsenal wouldn’t matter because nuclear war is simply not winnable! It is too destructive for a rational mind to contemplate, and the whole world stands to lose in a big way if it ever happens. President Kennedy’s warning in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis is worth taking to heart. He said: “Above all, while defending our vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to the choice of either a humiliating defeat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy…or a collective death-wish for the world”. The world needs to help India, Pakistan and China diplomatically and intelligently negotiate their way out of potential nuclear showdown to save the world from collective suicide. If the course and consequences of conventional war are unimaginable, God forbid that there should ever be a nuclear confrontation.
• Prof Fawole is of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.