The key geo-strategic challenges in Southern Asia emanate from the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and on the AfPak border; unresolved territorial disputes between India and China, and India-Pakistan; and, the almost unbridled scourge of radical extremism that is sweeping across the strategic landscape.
In May 1998, India and Pakistan had crossed the nuclear Rubicon and declared themselves states armed with nuclear weapons. Tensions are inherent in the possession of nuclear weapons by neighbours with a long history of conflict. The latest manifestation of this long-drawn conflict is the 20-year old state-sponsored ‘proxy war’ waged by Pakistan’s ISI-controlled mercenary terrorists against the Indian state.
While there was some nuclear sabre-rattling between India and Pakistan, particularly during the Kargil conflict, the two nations have never come close to a situation of deterrence breakdown. The “ugly stability” that is prevailing can be attributed primarily to India’s unwavering strategic restraint in the face of grave provocation, democratic checks and balances in its policy processes and tight civilian control over its nuclear forces. However, the Pakistan army, which also controls the country’s nuclear arsenal, has lost India’s trust after the Kargil conflict and the terrorist strikes at Mumbai. It is capable of once again stepping up trans-LoC terrorism or even engendering a Kargil-like situation that could escalate to a major war.
India’s border with China has been relatively more stable than that with Pakistan. However, China is in physical occupation of 38,000 sq km of Indian territory in Ladakh, J&K, and China claims the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (96,000 sq km) in the north-east. Even the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has not been demarcated on the ground and on military maps. Recently China has exhibited unprecedented assertiveness in its diplomacy and military posture. Until the territorial dispute between the two countries is resolved satisfactorily, another border conflict cannot be ruled out even though the probability is quite low.
China does not recognise India as a state armed with nuclear weapons and demands that India should go back to a non-nuclear status in terms of UNSC Resolution 1172 and, hence, refuses to discuss nuclear confidence building measures (CBMs) and nuclear risk reduction measures (NRRMs) with India. There is also a collusive nexus between China and Pakistan for nuclear weapons, nuclear-capable missiles and military hardware. Most analysts in India believe that this nexus will lead to India having to face a two-front situation during any future conflict.
The prevailing security environment in Southern Asia is not conducive to long-term strategic stability even though in the short-term there is no cause for major concern. India is developing robust military capabilities and is in the process of upgrading its military strategy against China from dissuasion to deterrence. In the nuclear weapons field, India is moving towards the deployment of the third leg of its triad, i.e. a nuclear-powered submarine armed with a submarine launched nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles (SSBN with SLBMs). This will give India genuine nuclear deterrence capability so as to prevent deterrence breakdown and reduce the risk of nuclear exchanges in any future conflict.
(Gurmeet Kanwal is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.)