South Asia as nuclear flashpoint

The SIPRI report, if analysed critically, makes it imperative for India and Pakistan to correct their image to de-escalate the situation
South Asia as nuclear flashpoint
Representational Pic

The world has not taken off its eyes of India and Pakistan and their hostilities leading to a possible nuclear clash. This is a worrying scenario as the two neighbouring countries  united by geography  could  have played a big role in stabilising the situation in the region are profiled in a drastically  opposite frame. More worrying is that the land border between the two countries, and the Kashmir issue, are seen as the major contributing factors for the nuclear trigger in the region. After going through the report, there is only one conclusion that India and Pakistan have no option but to work in lockstep not only to dispel this unpalatable impression but also change the landscape from that of hostility to happiness.

Some of the observations made by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in its April 2021 report," South Asia's Nuclear Challenges, Interlocking views from India, Pakistan, China, Russia and the United States "based on interviews of 119 experts drawn from political, regional and military lines are worrying. It has a special importance in the given situation and time in the region. It has narrowed the definition of the nuclear weapons and their impact in South Asia to tensions between India and Pakistan. That means that despite 1998 and Kargil conflict of 1999 behind us for decades now, the world is still looking at the tensions between the two countries. This is a sad commentary on the relationship between two neighbouring countries.

It is  particularly so, when seen against the backdrop of the February 24-25, 2021,  reaffirmation of the November 2003 ceasefire between the two nations. As a result, a hope appeared on the horizon. The pursuit of turning hope into real-time peace could have made the world to change its view about these two nations, but Islamabad has pressed the pause button on resumption of trade with India.

It has overruled the decision of its own Economic Coordination Committee to start import of sugar, cotton and cotton yarn from India. It has used the euphemism of stalling the process of resumption of bilateral ties by claiming that it has deferred the decision on import from India till Delhi reverses its decision of August 5, 2019 of doing away with the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcation of the erstwhile state into two union territories.

Agreed that Pakistan has always insisted on discussing Kashmir with India, but  this is not the way. It has stunned the people on both sides of border. It is wrong messaging to the world. In short, Pakistan has portrayed itself having as having unanticipated reserves to overturn its own decisions.

Dawn newspaper in its editorial on Saturday ( April 3), 2021), noted, "The episode raises several questions, and cannot be shrugged off by ministers. It has created embarrassment. It points to a faulty system and also creates the impression that the key job of decision-making is conducted in a juvenile manner." There was yet another significant point made in the editorial, "the reversal of the decision on imports from India is a bizarre development – one that falls squarely under the unfortunate category of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing. It not only betrays a lack of coordination within the government, it also points to poor decision-making on a serious matter that requires a sensible and level headed approach."

This is how Pakistan dealt with the matter of trade with India, it sends shivers down the spine as to what it could do when it comes to the use of nuclear option. The SIPRI report authored by two highly respected scholars  Lora Saalman and Petr Topychkanov gains extra relevance in these times.

Of particular importance is the view of the experts from India and Pakistan on the issue. "On India and Pakistan, while experts from both countries focused on how the other has engaged in lowering the nuclear threshold, there was a mutual interest in how Chinese-US competition emerging technologies may have cascade effects that shape South Asia's deterrence landscape," after having observed this, the report said that the experts from both the countries expressed "concerns over how such technologies as hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence ( AI) and autonomy may change the deterrence landscape, particularly in terms of surveillance, command and control and even shorter reaction times."

These point out to the pitfalls of two alliances – US-India, Pakistan-China in the region. The report more than once highlights that how the mutual distrust could invite unpalatable scenarios – of course, I am using soft words to avoid the alarming terms to deliberately avert raising of temperatures in the current situation in which Delhi and Islamabad are locked today. I hope that the things move forward in the direction of peace and progress.

The report has referred to Kargil conflict of  the summer of 1999 when the two countries fought a mini-war in the trans-Himalayas in Ladakh, that time part of Jammu and Kashmir state – now Kargil is part of Ladakh union territory but it cannot be separated from the overall security spectrum of India and Pakistan in the region. That time the possibility of the use of the nuclear weapons had arisen. The US diplomacy and wise counselling by China advising India and Pakistan to maintain the sanctity of the Line of Control had worked to de-escalate the situation. India had regained all the heights before war was over. India had written a new script in mountain warfare that came handy in 2020 standoff with China in eastern Ladakh .

While the report has made a reference to Kargil in the context of possibilities of nuclear clash, it has not mentioned all other details about the conflict that drew the global attention. It, however has made mention of the other terror assaults on India – the December  2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, 26/11 Mumbai attacks and also that of Uri and Pulwama terror attacks in September 2016 and February 2019. The researchers have left the whole thing to the experts, some of whom cited "the longstanding dispute over Kashmir as the central issue and most likely impetus for nuclear escalation ."

Since the  research was done in 2020, the report has not reflected  upon the developments of early part of 2021 between India and Pakistan. But, even before that, there always was a fear that Pakistan's nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of groups like Al-Qaeda.

Former US President Barack Obama in his book A Promised Land noted that how Pakistan was helping Al-Qaeda, the global terror network being run by Osama bin Laden, who was eliminated in Pakistan's garrison town Abbottabad by American elite Marines.

The SPRI report, if analysed critically, makes it imperative for India and Pakistan to correct their image to de-escalate the situation. Few experts have based their comments on scenarios and they have not reflected pleasantly about India and Pakistan. Delhi and Islamabad must work together to dispel this perception. It is good for both.

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