Strategic Stability in South Asia – Challenges and Prospects

Preamble

India and Pakistan have a seven decades long history of hostile and acrimonious relations interspersed with three major wars and some serious border skirmishes within the first 25 years of their existence as sovereign states. Since 1971, however, there has been no major war between the two neighbours, though the uneasy peace between them has been dotted with some serious crises and a major clash of arms across the Line of Control in the Kargil area of Jammu and Kashmir, in 1999. It was hoped, that after the overt nuclearisation of the two South Asian antagonists, a period of relative calm and stability would ensue in the region. However, strategic stability in South Asia has remained elusive and in recent years with the breakdown of the ‘Composite Dialogue’ process and growing frequency and intensity of firing incidents across the Line of Control as well as the Working Boundary, new challenges to strategic stability have emerged. The tendency, on part of the Indian media as well as some political elements in India, to term any terrorist incident happening on Indian soil as “Cross-border Terrorism”, and accusing Pakistani establishment of complicity, without even waiting for the outcome of their own official investigations, has repeatedly derailed on-going efforts aimed at reconciliation between India and Pakistan.

These trends even after the passage of over a decade and a half since India and Pakistan conducted tit-for-tat nuclear tests in May 1998 are disturbing to say the least. It was not unrealistic to expect that the two South Asian neighbours would curb their tendencies for sabre rattling and brinkmanship, and develop institutionalised mechanisms for crisis management and implement appropriate confidence building measures (CBMs), to stabilise their security relationship. Unfortunately, such hopes have not yet been realised, tensions run high, and the regional stability remains fragile. The Composite Dialogue initiated in 2004, with a lot of promise, has not yielded much, except some useful CBMs. The dialogue was unfortunately disrupted after the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008, and several efforts to breathe fresh life into it have so far failed to materialise.Undoubtedly, there are elements on both sides which would not like to see peace and amity between the two countries and in the recent past, non-state actors and violent groups have, on several occasions, precipitated incidents that brought the two South Asian neighbours to the brink of war. The recent unprecedented stopover at Lahore by the Indian Prime Minister, though high on optics rather than substance, had raised hopes of resumption of the long-stalled dialogue and improvement in bilateral relations between India and Pakistan.

Undoubtedly, there are elements on both sides which would not like to see peace and amity between the two countries and in the recent past, non-state actors and violent groups have, on several occasions, precipitated incidents that brought the two South Asian neighbours to the brink of war. The recent unprecedented stopover at Lahore by the Indian Prime Minister, though high on optics rather than substance, had raised hopes of resumption of the long-stalled dialogue and improvement in bilateral relations between India and Pakistan.[i] The visit itself followed a series of positive engagements including the exchange of pleasantries between the two Prime Ministers on the sidelines of the Climate Summit at Paris, the meeting at Bangkok between the respective National Security Advisors,the signing of the TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India gas pipeline) agreement, and visit to Islamabad by Indian External Affairs Minister to attend the Heart of Asia meeting. The Indian Prime Ministers’s Lahore visit had created the kind of positive atmosphere that was needed for the resumption of Foreign Secretary level talks scheduled for mid-January 2016. However, a terrorist attack at an Indian airbase a little over a week after the visit has played straight into the hands of hostile Indian media and the political opposition that had already been critical of Prime Minister Modi’s initiative. Pakistan, on its part, has not only condemned the incident, but has also offered cooperation to India. One would only hope that sagacity would prevail and the Foreign Secretaries talks would be rescheduled but not called off. With ‘peace and security’ being one of the ten core issues of the ‘Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue’, a stalled dialogue process between the two nuclear armed states would have an adverse impact on strategic stability in South Asia. Before discussing the specifics of Strategic Stability in South Asia, it would be pertinent here to provide a brief overview of the concept of strategic stability itself.

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