Asia’s prominence in geopolitical theatre was on full display last week as an escalation in tensions between traditional rivals India and Pakistan unfolded simultaneously with a Hanoi summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.
The nuclear summit took place against a backdrop of India’s surprise air attack across the border in Pakistan, against what it described as ‘terrorist camps’, prompting a retaliatory strike from Pakistan a day later. When two nuclear weapon states threaten to go to war, the world has to intervene.
The nuclear summit itself was a failure, prompting the US president to turn his attention to India and Pakistan. He promised that ‘reasonably attractive news’ would soon become available about US efforts to broker a de-escalation in tensions. A few hours after the president’s remarks, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that a detained Indian Air Force pilot would be returned to India, generating significant goodwill and an easing in tensions.
Has the pause button been hit in the interminable seven-decade long bloody conflict over Kashmir between India and Pakistan? Probably not if the angry rhetoric emanating from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is any indicator. However, last week’s stand-off provides important clues to the future trajectory of South Asia’s perennial conflict.
The short-term impact
The trigger for the latest round of tensions came after 40 Indian paramilitary forces were killed in a suicide bombing in Pulwama, Kashmir. Public opinion in India, always sensitive to terrorist attacks originating from Pakistan, became inflamed, leaving the government with no choice but to demonstrate a hard line against Pakistan.
It is election season in India, with crucial parliamentary polls in a few weeks, and Prime Minister Modi, in the eyes of his critics, appeared to use the suicide bombing as a platform to rally support for his party.
On the other side of the border, Pakistan’s newish prime minister Imran Khan faced what was possibly his first real crisis.
It is no secret that Pakistan, by its own admission, is host to militant and terrorist organisations targeting India, Afghanistan and Pakistan itself, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) which was behind the suicide bombing. The suicide bomber has been identified as a young man from Kashmir, which proves that blunt force has radicalized a new generation with tragic consequences.
Breaking the cycle
However, breaking this cycle of violence will require some kind of a grand bargain, elusive for decades, over Kashmir. The key to potentially unlocking such a bargain cannot be found in the official corridors of Islamabad and New Delhi, hostages to history, angry rhetoric and domestic politics, but in Doha, Qatar where American negotiators and Taliban officials are negotiating a potential peace deal which could end the long-running conflict in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s insecurity over what it perceives to be India’s outsized role in Afghan politics is one major stumbling block for the peace deal currently being negotiated at Doha. Islamabad believes it has effective veto power because of its own influence over the Taliban. The Taliban itself has refused to involve the official Afghan government in the discussions, raising uncomfortable questions over the durability of any agreement.
Complicated as all of this may sound, there is a serious possibility that Doha may well yield a successful peace deal which could see an uneasy concordat between the key decisionmakers over Afghanistan’s future, not least because of President Trump’s desire to end American’s long military engagement.
This will force a rethink of Pakistan and India’s own calculations since the four-decade long Afghan conflict has cast a long shadow over any resolution in Kashmir. Any resolution of the festering dispute will require a strategy to win the hearts and minds of disaffected Kashmiris, preventing the further radicalization of youth, rather than expedient political compromise.
Significantly the international community, which played an important behind-the-scenes role in defusing tensions last week, demonstrated that they retain considerable leverage over India and Pakistan.
It was not Washington DC alone which played a critical role – Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj was in Beijing meeting with Chinese officials last week, which was preceded by a visit to Islamabad and New Delhi by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. India was probably also reassured by a US, French and British proposal to the UN Security Council last week to designate JeM chief Masood Azhar as a ‘global terrorist’.
Of the two nations, Pakistan is in a more precarious economic situation and in desperate need of international support.
Its condition is reflected by its protracted attempt to secure an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the second such bailout since 2013 and a record-breaking 13th since the early 1980s. Saudi Arabia and China, Pakistan’s primary benefactors, have already offered financial support, but these are at non-transparent terms which the current government is keen to diversify away from.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has spoken consistently about the need for a peace dialogue with India and for rebuilding Pakistan’s economy. A growing link with India’s continent-sized economy would certainly help. Although official trade between India and Pakistan is at a modest $2 billion, trade unofficially routed via Dubai is believed to be amount to several times that number.
Nevertheless, India’s decision to revoke Pakistan’s most-favoured-nation status will hurt with cement, fruit and vegetable exporters bearing the brunt.
A new generation
Seven decades of geopolitical conflict have prevented India and Pakistan from developing a close-knit economic partnership, further exacerbating conditions on the ground in Kashmir. But the most hopeful sign from last week’s Himalayan stand-off is the assertive voice of youth from both countries.
Although media, social media in particular, displayed the usual crass, jingoistic behaviour on both sides of the border, it was young people (and journalists) who took to Twitter using the hashtag #SayNoToWar, which was unprecedented.
Both countries are ruled by gerontocrats, but their populations are skewing younger, with a majority in India and Pakistan under the age of 30. De-escalation should indeed be the priority, but it remains to be seen how much young people’s voices in both countries will be heard.