Daniel Markey is Senior Advisor, South Asia Programs at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). His bio on the USIP website says, “He is also a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Foreign Policy Institute…Dr. Markey is the author of ‘China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia’ (Oxford University Press, 2020). The book assesses the evolving political, economic, and security links between China and its western neighbors, including Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. He is also the author of ‘No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad’ (Cambridge University Press, 2013).” In short, he seems to be well qualified to comment on the risk of serious conflict in South Asia.
In this piece in the Wire, Dr Markey says that the risk of nuclear conflict in south Asia is growing because four sets of dynamics are getting worse by the passing year:
Firstly, with the Taliban firmly in charge of Afghanistan again, the chances of the Taliban once again exporting terrorism to Pakistan, India and other places is on the ascendant: “The prospect of anti-Indian terrorism is also growing. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan shows no greater commitment to eliminating terrorist safe havens than it did in the 1990s, and Pakistan’s will (and capacity) for keeping a lid on cross-border terrorism will be tested as it faces heightened security and economic pressures at home. In addition, India’s repression of its Muslim minority community, especially in Kashmir, is simultaneously a reaction to past anti-state militancy and nearly guaranteed to inspire new acts of violence.”
In fact, the fact that Pakistan itself has no control over the Taliban heightens the risk of nuclear conflict: “Nor can Pakistan afford only to worry about its border with India. Relations between Islamabad and Kabul have deteriorated drastically ever since the Taliban swept back into power. Rather than controlling Afghanistan through its favoured militant proxies, Pakistan is suffering a surge in violence on its own soil,… Such violence, along with national political turmoil, environmental calamity and economic crisis, will raise concerns among some in the United States about threats to the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear enterprise.”
Secondly, what were in the past border skirmishes between India and Pakistan now risk being escalated into something far more serious. Dr Markey takes us back to spring 2019 and the Balakot episode: “Fear, hatred and other emotions can cloud human judgment, especially in the heat of a crisis when information is imperfect and communication difficult. Reflecting on his own experience of crisis management in Southern Asia, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo recently wrote that he does “not think the world properly knows just how close the India-Pakistan rivalry came to spilling over into a nuclear conflagration in February 2019.””
Thirdly, the more extensive China, India and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal gets, the greater the risk that war will get triggered inadvertently: “Accidents do happen. India’s misfire of a Brahmos missile test into Pakistan last year proved that point perfectly. No matter how well designed, nuclear systems are complicated and involve the potential for human or technical error. When something does go wrong, overreaction by opposing forces is less likely when they have a greater degree of confidence in, and knowledge of, the other side. Reliable and secure communications — in the form of hotlines — can help, but only to the point that they are actually used in a timely manner. Apparently, India failed to do so during the Brahmos incident.”
Finally, the biggest risk that conflict South Asia will turn into nuclear war is, says Dr Markey, China’s growing belligerence: “Events along the contested border between India and China hardly inspire confidence that New Delhi and Beijing have found a path back to normal relations after their bloody border skirmishes of 2020. To the contrary, the prospects of rapid military escalation have grown, principally because both sides have positioned greater numbers of more lethal forces close to the border. Before 2020, relatively small, unarmed Chinese and Indian patrols routinely risked coming into contact as they pressed territorial claims on the un-demarcated border. This was dangerous, but extremely unlikely to escalate rapidly into a serious military encounter. In early December 2022 hundreds of Chinese troops attacked an Indian camp in what could not possibly have been an unplanned operation. With tens of thousands of troops stationed not far away, conventional military escalation is far more plausible than it was just a few years ago.
Although there is still a long way between remote mountain warfare and a nuclear crisis, at least some Indian security officials anticipate a future of more routine border violence as troops on both sides become more entrenched. China and India are also jockeying in the Indian Ocean, where China’s increasing naval presence and influence with India’s smaller neighbours feed Indian insecurities and encourage New Delhi to seek countervailing defence ties with Quad partners (Japan, Australia and the United States) as well as other naval powers, like France.
Against this backdrop of tensions, China’s growing nuclear, missile and surveillance capabilities will look more threatening to Indian nuclear defence planners. New Delhi may even come to fear that China is developing a first strike so devastating that it would effectively eliminate India’s retaliatory response and, as a consequence, diminish the threat of its nuclear deterrent. In response, India could seek to demonstrate that it has thermonuclear weapons capable of destroying Chinese cities in one blow as well as more nuclear submarines capable of evading China’s first strike.”
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