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Strategic triangle in South Asia

By Ar Rehman

The balance of power as a concept has tremendously evolved to the next level after the inception of nuclear option into international politics. Nuclear dimension is an escalation of political dimension and greatly reduce the military aspect of balance of power. According to some realists, balance of power is a mix of political and military aspects that shapes nation states’ balancing approach against the adversary in a system. Therefore, to maintain the equilibrium and to thwart any military aggression, small states compel to develop deterrent capabilities and “strategic balance” becomes a focal point which considerably reducing the chances of total war since Cold War.

In context of South Asia, the balance of power equation has become enormously complex as the region is a host of three nuclear armed states i.e. China, Pakistan and India with competing territorial claims, history of hot wars and exponentially increasing defense budgets. Major Powers in South Asian politics have also been an unbalancing factor for the regional power equilibrium that increases the hard power gap to maintain their global dominance by engaging strategic partnerships with regional players. Pakistan, China and India aligns to make a strategic triangle, whereas Pakistan and China angles against a common threat that is India and China on the other hand is playing a significant role as a balancer between India and Pakistan. US entry in to this strategic triangle comes by choosing India as strategic partner and assigned it with an active role in US containment policy against China.

Since post 9/11, inter-state relations of China and Pakistan have influenced the South Asian politics and against all odds, have achieved new heights. In contrasting, the new Indo-US strategic nexus is a counter weight in balance of power equation of the regional politics that manifest mainly bilateral strategic partnerships based on “engagement and resistance”. If we analyze, Pak-China strategic partnership which is enduring, time tested and based upon legitimate security needs. Moreover, it is a guarantor of peace & stability and economic prosperity in South Asia, Central Asia and Russia as a balancing factor in today’s Unipolar world.  On the other hand, Indo-US strategic partnership aims to imbalance the strategic equilibrium of South Asia. India’s procurement of western military hardware, technology transfers, special wavier to enter into NSG and civil nuclear deal are the factors that can potentially ignite the arms race in the region. The indo-US nuclear deal is a green signal to India to increase its fissile stocks; thus improving its nuclear weapons, will lead to an arms race involving China, India and Pakistan. The recent Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which permits both India and US forces to use each other’s military bases for stationing troops and military hardware to keep an eye on China could also be threatening against Pakistan; thus a move to play with the delicate balance of power in the region. Therefore, the strategic quadrangle of China-Pakistan, India-United States is getting intense and influencing the South Asian politics.

The traditional arch rivals of South Asian strategic triangle, India and Pakistan are important players of regional security architecture. The nuclearization of India and Pakistan has greatly reduced the chances of all out war, but unable to cap the asymmetric warfare between the two countries. While Nuclear weapons are a workable deterrent between India and Pakistan in a conventional warfare threat, but unable to deter unconventional, a symmetric threat.  The internal threat in the shape of non state actors, insurgencies by militant groups has now become the core focus instead of external threat. Thus, armies of both India and Pakistan are embracing to this reality and actively enhancing their military capabilities.

India is surpassing Pakistan in military expenditure. Last year the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) enlisted the top 15 spending nations on military by putting India at 6th with $ 51.3 billion and Pakistan, $ 9.5 billion in 2015 in an annual report. Increased military spending from India is basically a factor that deteriorates the delicate balance of power in the region. Pakistan on the other hand decided not to engage in an arms race with India, but the existential threat that emanates from India needs a careful attention. Due to economic constraints, Pakistan is not in a position to engage India with weapon to weapon parity in conventional domain, but tactical nuclear weapon is a compelling option to bridge the gap, a force multiplier and a deterrent against India’s limited conventional war designs. Moreover, the Indian army’s delusional move to develop strategic doctrines is a reflection of war fighting mindset that tells India is still not adapted to the concept of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) and playing with nuclear balance of power against the threat; Indian air force is enhancing its capability and resources to counter both China and Pakistan, while its navy is preparing to blockade Pakistan to cut off vital supplies from the rest of the world in any future conflict. India’s increased defense procurement and forward deployments along the border, and Pakistan’s attraction towards tactical nuclear option makes a perfect equation for mutual assured destruction as Indian nuclear doctrine describes the threshold by highlighting any nuclear, chemical or biological attack against Indian armed forces will be massively retaliated. Therefore the space for a conventional war has greatly reduced due to the inception of nuclear weapons in South Asian politics, but the rise of asymmetric threats in the shape of non-state actors, terrorism and foreign funded insurgencies have re surfaced the viability of an armed conflict between Indian and Pakistan.

Therefore, the rational choice in this asymmetric hostile environment demands that both India and Pakistan should not let their relations at the mercy of non state actors / terrorists or militant groups. As the region is a host of 1.7 billion populations, any armed conflict between India and Pakistan, that can escalate to nuclear war would be a catastrophe for the entire world. To maintain the strategic balance in the region, Pakistan and India should work closely to resolve the outstanding issues that could lead to a confrontational path and never ending strategic arms race in the region. Kashmir which has been a hotspot for Indo-Pak rivalry provides a justification for arms buildup since partition, should be dealt with sanity and the aspirations of Kashmiri people. In this unique scenario, the role of China becomes pivotal as it is a regional player and also balances the strategic triangle of South Asia, should actively participate in conflict resolution.

Ar Rehman is a Research Affiliate in Islamabad-based think tank Strategic Vision Institute

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