On the brink of the first nuclear war: Revelation 8

China, India and Pakistan on the brink – The Diplomat

China, India and Pakistan on the brink – The Diplomat

This spring, as snow melts in the high border of the Himalayas between India, China and Pakistan, threatens the long-standing threat of crisis or even war. We, the co-chairs of one new study group report from the United States Institute of Peacefinds that too few in US national security and foreign policy circles understand how dangerous this region has become, how regional dynamics have changed over the past many years, and what more Washington should do in response.

This is the only region in the world where three nuclear-armed states share controversial and often violent borders, and where two nuclear powers – India and Pakistan – have launched air strikes on each other’s territories. All three powers are investing massively in their armed forces, deepening their border defenses and expanding their nuclear arsenals and delivery systems. While we hope that these investments will increase deterrence and encourage restraint, we consider the opposite to be more likely.

Fortunately, in stark contrast to Vladimir Putin, the leaders of China, India and Pakistan all seem to appreciate the risks and costs of war. No one is hell-bent on territorial conquest, at least not yet. That said, nationalism is a potent force throughout the region, and one that these states are likely to find easier to incite than limit. 

The deterrence logic also dictates that Beijing, Islamabad and New Delhi experience huge costs of looking weak along their borders. The fear of encouraging adventurousness or bullying of neighbors makes nations more likely to escalate strife in ways that risk turning smaller skirmishes into big fights. In 2019, terrorist attacks in India, claimed by a Pakistani-based device, triggered retaliatory airstrikes into Pakistan, followed by Pakistani reprisals in India. In 2020, deadly hand-to-hand combat between Indian and Chinese border patrols caused both sides to send tanks and artillery in close contact on high mountain plateaus. These heavy forces are no longer facing each other, but they remain stationed near the border in high alert and can accelerate the escalation of the next China-India flare-up. Accidents, such as the misfire in March 2022 of an Indian hypersonic cruise missile into Pakistani territory, add unpredictability to the mix.

US interests in the region are also changing. Like its recent predecessors, the Biden administration views India as an important strategic partner in intensifying geopolitical competition with China. Washington may have no direct stake in the specific solution to the China-India border dispute, but it has a clear and stated interest in India’s security and in deterring Chinese territorial aggression. 

That said, when New Delhi responds to attacks inside India backed by Pakistan-based terrorists or to cross-border aggression from Beijing, US support for India should be structured to reduce the risk of crisis escalation and lay the groundwork for greater stability rather than faster regional arms race. 

As China moves closer to Pakistan, India must take the prospect of a two-front crisis seriously, whether it is because Beijing and Islamabad coordinate their moves, because they opportunistically seize the advantage of India’s distracted focus, or out of sheer coincidence. Paradoxically, by moving closer to India, the United States is accentuating Pakistani perceptions of American abandonment and raising China’s alert to what Beijing perceives as a budding alliance with China, which is driving Beijing and Islamabad even closer.

To play a constructive role in the midst of such complicated regional relations and sometimes conflicting U.S. goals, U.S. policy makers should begin working to better anticipate and respond to potential nuclear crises in South Asia. The intelligence community should be asked to perform routine game exercises; the administration should develop a generalized policy handbook for India-Pakistan, China-India and overlapping China-India-Pakistan crises; and insights from these planning documents should be shared with future senior officials in relevant U.S. government agencies, embassies, and combatant commands. 

Washington should also work to improve real-time information sharing capabilities and crisis communication networks with and among all three nuclear states in South Asia. U.S. intelligence and police officials should be prepared to share information with regional actors – and publicly, if necessary – to combat misinformation in cases where it may prevent or de-escalate a conflict. They should continue and step up their efforts to help New Delhi improve the resilience of its information and communication channels to cyber and other threats and build on intelligence-sharing initiatives with India. U.S. diplomats should also coordinate with trusted third parties, such as the United Kingdom, France, and the UAE, so that they can serve as intermediaries and honest mediators in future crises.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Moscow’s not so veiled nuclear threats is a timely reminder that the nuclear taboo cannot be taken for granted. Even as this war continues, Washington should not lose sight of its frightening consequences for South Asia, or underestimate how an escalation of the region’s smoldering territorial conflicts between heavily armed nuclear states could quickly move from a spark to a devastating fire.

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