CANBERRA – For many years, I have argued in these pages that the Indian subcontinent and the Korean Peninsula are among the least unlikely theaters of a nuclear war. The known consequences of a nuclear war mean a deliberate policy decision to go to war is highly unlikely in either theater. But there are different dynamics at play in South and East Asia for an inadvertent nuclear war through an escalation spiral that can be triggered by a minor event, including miscommunication, flawed intelligence, system error or misperception of red lines.
We had a vivid illustration of this in February. Just as the U.S. and North Korean leaders were meeting in Hanoi for their second summit to try to resolve nuclear tensions in one theater, for the first time in history anywhere, nuclear-armed rivals conducted airstrikes and engaged in dogfights in the second theater.
Tensions have eased between India and Pakistan in the month since. However, geographical propinquity, territorial disputes, the toxic cocktail of Pakistan-based jihadist groups that wage hybrid war in India, growing nuclear stockpiles and expanding nuclear platforms, and the rise of militant Hindu nationalism in India mean the crisis will erupt again. The question is when, not if.
Since matching nuclearization in 1998, Pakistan has exploited the fear of nuclear war by identifying Kashmir as a nuclear flashpoint while waging a subconventional proxy warfare using jihadists to “bleed India with a thousand cuts.” The threat of nuclear escalation was meant to internationalize the bilateral dispute. External powers counseled patience and restraint on India and praised New Delhi effusively for not responding with military action.
But they failed to identify what action India, or for that matter the international community, could take to impose accountability on Pakistan for state sponsorship of cross-border terrorism. This was so despite NATO forces also being in the cross-hairs of jihadi attacks carried out in Afghanistan from militants based in safe havens in Pakistan.
Bilaterally, the nuclear overhang was used to thwart military retaliation by India. The fear of nuclear war turned the Line of Control in Kashmir into a sacrosanct red line not to be crossed by Indian forces under any circumstances. In 1999, unbeknown to Pakistan’s civilian government, army commandos captured the forbidding Kargil heights on the Indian side of the LoC by stealth even while Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif were engaged in peace diplomacy.
India launched military action to recapture Kargil, but the government forbade the military from crossing the LoC. The air force was refused permission, for example, to hit storage facilities on the other side that would have choked Pakistan’s supply lines. India did succeed in retaking Kargil, but paid a steep price in blood and treasure.
The world once again praised India’s restrained patience after the horrific attack on Mumbai on Nov. 26, 2008, that killed over 160 civilians. Most Indians felt shame and anger, while for some in the Pakistan military it was bias confirmation of “Hindu cowardice.” This self-defeating folly of “strategic restraint” has been jettisoned decisively and permanently: Domestic Indian politics will no longer tolerate it.
The facts on the details of the events of Feb. 26-27 remain contested. Regarding India’s strikes on Balakot deep inside Pakistan on the 26th, India claims it hit the targets precisely and Pakistan is aware of this. But India will not release details on casualties and damage nor provide evidence to support its version. Pakistan insists Indian planes incinerated some trees in the jungle before fleeing back to safety, but has prevented independent international journalists from visiting the targeted madrassa.
Regarding the aerial dogfights the next day, the one confirmed fact is an Indian MIG-21 was shot, its pilot ejected, landed in Pakistani territory, was captured and then released. There is no corroboration of Pakistan’s further boast of having shot down a Sukhoi-30, nor of India’s claim it brought down an F-16.
In the larger strategic perspective, the details are irrelevant. India has demonstrated the national intent, military capability and political resolve to take the war deep into enemy territory. In doing so it has unmistakably and very visibly changed the response matrix against attacks on Indian targets organized by jihadis operating from safe havens in Pakistan. This nullifies Pakistan’s policy of nuclear blackmail.
This is so even if India’s claims on the operations are exaggerated. For it proves India’s patience has snapped: “We bleed, you die.” No more futile diplomatic slaps on the wrist and efforts to organize a global naming and shaming campaign against Pakistan for harboring terrorists on its soil. The new normal — or what Boston University’s Adil Najam calls “a new abnormal” — is that Pakistan-based terrorist attacks on Indian targets will henceforth have military consequences that are more than pinpricks.
This changes the balance of incentives and disincentives for Islamabad. To avoid the risk of a nuclear escalation, state sponsorship of cross-border terrorism will have to end. As succinctly articulated by Eliot Engel, chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs committee, to avoid any miscalculation that could see the two countries slide down the slippery slope of nuclear war: “Pakistani leaders must take demonstrable action against Jaish-e-Mohammed and the terrorist infrastructure on Pakistan’s soil.”
This has implications for North Korea. Japan is the most insistent on complete, verified, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) and the most resistant to the idea of acknowledging North Korea as a de facto nuclear-armed state that leaves it with the ability to hit Seoul and Tokyo, but not New York and Washington. This is a false choice.
Demanding CVID will leave intact all the present very real risks without curtailing Pyongyang’s capability in any meaningful way, and possibly provoking it into continued gains on its nuclear and missile programs. Once Pyongyang has genuine ICBM capability, the U.S. ability and will to launch strikes in retaliation for attacks on East Asian allies will reduce correspondingly.
At present levels of capability, however, with the vastly superior U.S. electronic warfare, intelligence capabilities and lethal military force, accepting North Korea as a de facto nuclear-armed state would not give it impunity for aggressive provocations. Although a war of choice is unthinkable, with complete escalation dominance the U.S. could launch punitive strikes deep in enemy territory to impose accountability for rogue behavior. This offers more credible reassurance to Pacific allies.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.