China continues the Kashmir conflict

The escalating conflict in South Asia

Preliminary version

On May 11, 1998, India shocked the world with the explosion of three nuclear explosive devices - two more nuclear tests followed two days later. The Indian government explicitly declared the country a nuclear weapon state and a world power with a right to permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council. Pakistan, which has also long been counted among the "emerging nuclear countries", responded to these provocations with sharp protests and its own preparations for nuclear tests. On May 28, Pakistan detonated five nuclear explosive devices and another two days later. The Pakistani government announced that it had caught up with India.

India had successfully kept the preparations for its nuclear tests secret from the American reconnaissance satellites, so that the timing of the tests was surprising, but not the decision itself already started in mid-1995. The coming into power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Vajpayee, which had long called for open nuclearization, accelerated this process.

Open nuclearization has fundamentally changed the security situation in South Asia. There is a risk of a nuclear arms race. The risk of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan is considered to be greater than that between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. While the latter were never involved in a direct military conflict with each other, India and Pakistan have waged no fewer than three wars against each other in the 50+ years of their independence and to this day hardly a day goes by without an exchange of fire in Kashmir, which is claimed by both sides and artillery skirmishes between the two parties.

The regional conflict potential and its causes

The rivalry between India and Pakistan, which shapes bilateral, regional and international relations in South Asia, dates back to the partition of British India in 1947. Since then, the focus of the conflict has been the unresolved question of Kashmiri membership. At its core, it is about the peaceful coexistence of Hindus and Muslims on the Indian subcontinent. The leader of the Muslim League Jinnah was able to prevail against the advocates of unity with Gandhi and Nehru at the top with his so-called "two-nation theory". The division, which led to the relocation of over 10 million people amid unimaginable atrocities, became a trauma for both (now three) states. Despite the resettlement, there are now 810 million Hindus as well as 120 million Muslims in India, almost as many as in Pakistan (135 million) and the same as in Bangladesh.

Kashmir - a symbol of the self-image of both states

Only a few weeks after independence, the first Indo-Pakistani war broke out around Kashmir, which was predominantly Muslim and was formally independent under a Hindu king, which ended in partition in 1948 through the mediation of the United Nations (UN). Since then, the affiliation of the Indian part of Kashmir has repeatedly given rise to political and military conflicts between the two countries. A referendum called for by the UN and originally promised by Nehru and repeatedly called for by Pakistan on the final membership of Kashmir is rejected by India. (India made Kashmir a federal state of the Indian Union as early as the 1950s.) Instead, India insists on bilateral negotiations, as agreed with Pakistan in the Simla Peace Agreement (1972) after India's victorious third Indo-Pakistani war.

For Pakistan, Kashmir’s own idea of ​​the state, namely the right to self-determination and the right to unity of all Muslims in South Asia, is at stake. For India, Kashmir is the only federal state with a Muslim majority and thus proof of the pluralistic character and integrative power of the Indian Union. Its separation could also give impetus to the separatist ambitions of other national communities.

Pakistan's emphasis on religion fundamentally challenges the idea of ​​India as a secular state. The emphasis on secularism and pluralism - as in the Indian constitution - in turn undermines Pakistan's religious legitimacy. Both ideas are irreconcilable because they imply the fragmentation or absorption of the other state.

The Kashmir conflict also contributed to the fact that the front position of the Cold War spread to South Asia: Pakistan leaned against the USA. India maintained its foreign policy independence, but turned to the USSR after the Indo-Chinese War in 1962. China then sided with Pakistan.

India's claim to great power status and leadership role in South Asia

During the first four decades after independence, India's foreign policy was shaped by its involvement in the non-aligned movement and strong ties to the Soviet Union. Since the end of the East-West conflict and the fall of the Soviet Union, India has endeavored to redefine its international location. Initially, the focus was on opening up to the West and expanding relations with the states of South and Southeast Asia. In July 1996 India became a dialogue partner of ASEAN and a participant in the "ASEAN Regional Forum" (ARF). At the same time, India "discovered" the "South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation" (SAARC) as an instrument for improved regional cooperation, particularly in the economic field.

India is a functioning, but nonetheless insecure democracy with the characteristics of a great power that has come too late: loud in its claims, easily vulnerable and great in symbolism, which is supposed to demonstrate its own independence. The benchmark for comparison is China, which is likely to be replaced by India as the most populous nation in the middle of the next century. In contrast to India, China is a recognized nuclear power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and an economic and political partner heavily wooed by the West. In the eyes of many Indians, China's "status lead" can ultimately be traced back to the Chinese nuclear weapon. Especially in the face of this competition with China, India saw the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as an unacceptable attempt to cement the global two-class society.

Pakistan has been fighting for its domestic political and constitutional consolidation since independence. The military took power three times alone and today, despite its retreat into the barracks in 1988, it still has considerable influence. Since its foundation, Pakistan has seen itself threatened primarily by India, but also to the west by Afghanistan (Pashtunistan question, Durand line). In economic terms, too, Pakistan threatens to fall behind India more and more. While Pakistan achieved average economic growth of 4 percent over the past five years, Indian growth was well above 6.5 percent.

India's claim to regional leadership in South Asia was never accepted by Pakistan. In view of the overwhelming power of India, Pakistan repeatedly sought the help of great powers (USA, China) or international organizations. The associated internationalization of regional conflicts (especially Kashmir) was in turn viewed by India as a threat to its national security and exacerbated the existing conflicts.

In the discussion about the reform of the UN Security Council, the two states neutralize each other. While India is striving for its own permanent seat and sees itself as the sole Asian candidate, Pakistan is ready for any solution that does not mean worse off than India. For India, only full equality with China is acceptable in a reformed Security Council.

Threat perception of India and Pakistan

This constellation gives rise to the feeling of threat in India and Pakistan, which has always served as a justification for expanding the military. There is only one enemy in Pakistan: India - mainly because of its stance on the Kashmir issue. During the 1980s, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan temporarily added another threat. A distinction is made between two levels of threat in India: On the bilateral level, there is the conflict with Pakistan. In a larger regional context, China is seen as a far greater threat, especially since the traumatic defeat in the Himalayan War of 1962. India's nuclear armament is a direct reaction to the Chinese nuclear potential, but is also intended to underpin India's claim to a global political role. In the past, the extra-regional powers in the Indian Ocean, especially the USA with its naval base Diego Garcia - were perceived as a threat to Indian security and served as a justification for the expansion of the Indian navy.

The inclusion of China complicates the security situation in South Asia considerably. This creates an open security and threat triangle between China, India and Pakistan. While India sees itself as being threatened primarily by China and Pakistan as a secondary threat, Pakistan feels threatened exclusively by India, but it is itself in a strategic partnership with China, with which it also cooperates in terms of nuclear and missile technology. The main destabilizing effect is the fact that this open triangular relationship consists of two imbalances. India is inferior to China and Pakistan is inferior to India. The temptation is great for the loser to upgrade nuclear and ballistically, but this should not achieve a stabilizing deterrent equilibrium.

The arms race between India and Pakistan

With 1.2 million soldiers (plus numerous special units), the Indian army is the fourth largest in the world. Its importance has increased significantly in recent years (increasing use in domestic political conflicts), but it has always been loyal to civilian governments since the state was founded. In contrast, the army in Pakistan (580,000 soldiers plus special forces) plays a much more active role domestically. The phases of direct military rule (1958-69 and 1977-88) had a lasting impact on the country's political and social structures. The army, which sees itself as the guardian of national unity, is one of the most important domestic political actors in today's democratic Pakistan. While the defense burdens of both countries were around 3-4% of the gross domestic product (GDP) up to 1970, the burdens of Pakistan have increased considerably since then. In 1994/95 they were 7.1% of GDP, compared to 2.44% in India. While India tried to build up its own arms industry, Pakistan relied more heavily on arms imports, primarily from the USA and China. The dynamism of the arms race in both countries has always been closely linked to bilateral and international crises.

A comparison of the armed forces shows a clear qualitative and quantitative preponderance of India at all levels. Given this superiority of India, it is not surprising that Pakistan began to seek nuclear weapons from the mid-1970s. The defeat against India in 1971, the secession of Bangladesh, which at the same time permanently shook the two-nation theory as the basis of the state, the terms of the treaty in the subsequent Simla peace treaty, which Pakistan felt as humiliating, and the official announcement by India in the early 1970s of its own nuclear research program hang up, were the decisive factors.

After the Indo-Chinese War of 1962 and the Chinese nuclear explosion of 1964, India faced a nuclear threat. The nuclear program started in 1974 led to the first "civil" declared nuclear test. India did not place this atomic explosion in a military context and did not derive any claims to the status of a nuclear weapon state from it. As a result, Canada and the USA either stopped or restricted their nuclear technology cooperation with India. India is likely to have 20 to 30 simple plutonium nuclear weapons today. The estimated stock of weapons-grade plutonium should be sufficient to produce around 40 to 50 atomic warheads. With its fighter jets, India can threaten the entire Pakistani area with nuclear weapons. The Indian Prithvi short-range missiles are not suitable as a nuclear weapon carrier due to their limited range (150-250 km). The medium-range missile Agni has not yet been introduced into the armed forces. It is to be expected that India will now focus primarily on the development of nuclear warheads and their compatibility with delivery systems. The nuclearization of security policy has long been part of the basic program of the ruling national-Hindu BJP. The nuclear program is hardly questioned; it is too much a symbol of national greatness and sovereignty.

Pakistan commissioned its first research reactor with US support in 1965, and since 1972 the only nuclear power plant to date has been producing energy. As early as 1965, the then Foreign Minister Bhutto declared that he would counter an Indian one with its own atomic bomb. After Pakistan had already tried to compensate for Indian superiority through the development of nuclear weapons after its defeat by India in 1971, these efforts were considerably expanded after the Indian nuclear test of 1974. Through uranium enrichment, Pakistan reached its goal in the second half of the 1980s. Pakistan has been producing highly enriched uranium for three to four warheads annually since the early 1990s. The construction plans for nuclear explosive devices are said to have come to Pakistan, primarily due to the close armaments-related cooperation with China. Before the tests, Pakistan was estimated to have 10 to 20 simple uranium nuclear weapons that could be transported on specially converted F-16s. Current Pakistani nuclear weapon models are unlikely to be suitable for shipment with the Ghauri medium-range missile under development or the Chinese M-11 missiles. Pakistan is working on the development of plutonium nuclear weapons, which are better suited for missiles than nuclear weapons carriers. It started its own plutonium production in the spring.

India is likely to have a clear lead over Pakistan in both nuclear weapons construction and the development of nuclear warfare.

In Pakistan, too, the nuclear program - despite the high costs - has the approval of a clear majority of the population. While there is critical public opinion in India, in Pakistan it is at most rudimentary and is subject to stronger repression. The economic difficulties in both countries and their international dependency will, however, place limits on the populist instrumentalisation of nuclear policy, especially in Pakistan.

Consequences of Open Nuclearization

Danger of nuclear war

The border between India and Pakistan is currently one of the most conflictual regions in the world. Two of the three Indo-Pakistani wars and several other crises were triggered by insurgents in Kashmir (1947/48, 1990) or by internal political turmoil (1971 secession of East Pakistan, 1987 Sikh unrest in Punjab). Neither Islamabad nor Delhi leaders wanted the conflict, but both were unable to manage the crises. The unacceptably high human and material losses of a nuclear war are likely to discipline the political leaderships in both countries to a certain extent and thus have a long-term conflict-dampening effect, but they will hardly affect the factors that have repeatedly triggered crises in the past. Such crises can now escalate nuclear. However, this was to be expected even before the most recent tests. Since the atomic potentials are still being built up, the temptation is growing to eliminate the opposing developments with a preventive first strike.

What speaks against the likelihood of a nuclear escalation, however, is that nuclear weapons are least suitable for use in a border conflict: The geographical, climatic and demographic conditions mean that any nuclear operation on the subcontinent would not remain without serious consequences for those who make them Implementation.

The history of the East-West conflict shows that it takes a long and complex learning process to learn to live with the "bomb". Appropriate procedures, behavioral patterns and institutions must be developed in order to establish a stable deterrent system. These include a corresponding military doctrine, arms control measures, confidence-building measures, advance warning systems and "hot wires". Considerable educational work is still required in both countries in order to anchor the realistic consequences of a nuclear exchange in the minds of the affected elites and - even more difficultly - of the population at large.

The prerequisites for a stable deterrent system are not (yet) in place in South Asia. In the second half of the 1980s and most recently in 1990, the region has been on the brink of nuclear war at least twice. The risk of a nuclear war "by accident" is great. Neither India nor Pakistan are yet prepared to deal with nuclear weapons and their risks. Today South Asia is the region worldwide - off the Korean peninsula - where the danger of the use of nuclear weapons appears greatest.

In contrast to the East-West conflict, South Asia is not a bipolar antagonism, but a tripolar system that is much more difficult to stabilize.

India's relations with China have been severely disrupted by the May 1998 tests. Since the mid-1980s there had been a clear rapprochement between the two countries: agreements on trade exchange, agreement on competing spheres of influence (Tibet, Nepal) up to a border agreement (1993) and an agreement to reduce troops along the common border (1996). The visit of Rajiv Gandhi to Beijing in 1988 and the return visit of Jinag Zemin to Dehli in 1996 were symbolic of this rapprochement. On the other hand, Beijing maintained its cooperation with Pakistan and unsettled its southern neighbor by attempting to advance to the Indian Ocean via Myanmar (Burma). The implementation of the confidence-building measures agreed in 1996 and 1997 to stabilize the military length along the control line in the Himalayas is likely to have become more difficult. The risk of military clashes in this region and in the Bay of Bengal is also likely to have risen again. Overall, the open nuclearization of India does not mean a direct military challenge to China, which remains far superior to India in both conventional and nuclear terms. However, Beijing is likely to be forced to turn the focus of its foreign policy, which is entirely on East Asia, at least partially to South Asia, where it is developing an ideological as well as strategic competitor in India, which itself seeks to expand its influence into Southeast Asia.

For stability and security in South Asia, it is important to what extent China takes Pakistan's side, especially in a worsening conflict situation (e.g. over Kashmir). Beijing will also not be ready to incorporate its own nuclear potential into possible regional disarmament agreements for South Asia. India, on the other hand, is likely to try to keep a partisan China, which is also not putting its nuclear potential at the disposal, from possible agreements on a South Asian security order.

Incorporate India and Pakistan into the nuclear non-proliferation regime

The nuclear tests in India and Pakistan have been strongly condemned around the world. Many governments feared the end or at least permanent damage to the successful arms control and non-proliferation policies of the past few years. After the meeting of the foreign ministers of the five nuclear-weapon states (P 5) in Geneva on June 4, 1998, the UN Security Council already passed a unanimous resolution on June 6, condemning the nuclear tests and calling on both states to enter into a dialogue on all bilateral issues, including Cashmere. This motion was tied to the affirmation of the non-proliferation regime and the test freeze agreement.

In the USA the shock was particularly deep because of the lack of advance warning from the intelligence service, but also because of the already initiated revaluation of the American policy on India, which was to culminate in the planned visit of President Clinton at the end of 1998. A system of mandatory sanctions developed by Congress with a view to nuclear armament in South Asia left the US government little scope for diplomatic maneuvers. With the nuclear tests, a whole package of sanctions came into effect almost automatically - something India and Pakistan had known for years.

But soon doubts were raised about the usefulness of these sanctions, since the tests had taken place despite their threats, the willingness of other states to follow the US example was low and the US had narrowed its diplomatic leeway itself. In addition, fears increased that a Pakistan bankrupted by the sanctions could sell nuclear and missile technology and know-how to third parties.

It therefore soon became a declared goal not to isolate India and Pakistan, but to integrate them. The statements by India and Pakistan that they want to participate in the treaties on non-proliferation and nuclear arms control contributed to this change of opinion.

The common goals of the five nuclear-weapon states and the EU vis-à-vis India and Pakistan include the abandonment of further nuclear tests, the unconditional signature and ratification of the test ban agreement, the cessation of the production of fissile material, the non-deployment of launch vehicles, and the abandonment of the production of nuclear weapons , but at least on the introduction of nuclear weapons in the armed forces and the agreement of verification measures to monitor commitments entered into. The course of the American-Indian government talks, which have been taking place since July 1998, gives reason to hope that India will actually break with its policy of refusal of the past.

The political task: security even without conflict resolution

Given the complex constellation of national, regional and international conflicts, South Asia is likely to be one of the most dangerous international crisis regions of the 21st century. Hindu nationalists in India and Islamic nationalist parties and the army in Pakistan are unlikely to allow any concessions on the Kashmir issue in the future either. The strong independence movement in Kashmir does not facilitate the solution either, since an independent Kashmir would hit the core of both state ideologies and is therefore unacceptable for both. The conflict resolution proposals of the two sides are mutually exclusive: India insists on a strict bilateral solution, while Pakistan wants to solve the question with the help of international organizations or other states.

Since the conflict is one of the central domestic and foreign policy areas of conflict in both countries, it also repeatedly serves to justify further armament. Therefore, the prospects for containing the conventional and nuclear arms race in South Asia are not favorable. The development of the nuclear capabilities of India and Pakistan have a momentum of their own that is very difficult to influence from the outside. Since the armament programs meet the security needs of both sides and the status quo of India, the arms race can only be stopped or at least slowed down if the security situation in South Asia can be improved. However, this should only be possible in the long term.

Despite numerous meetings between the heads of government (22 between 1980 and 1992 alone), only one agreement on nuclear programs has so far been reached. In 1988, Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto signed a contract in which both of them refrain from attacking the opponent's nuclear facilities in the event of a conflict. In 1992 both countries exchanged lists of their systems. It remains to be seen how strongly such an agreement actually works in the event of a conflict.

Since the status quo ante cannot be restored, it is now urgently necessary that India and Pakistan - regardless of the short-term unsolvable Kashmir conflict - improve their previously poorly developed crisis management skills. To this end, bilateral India-Pakistani negotiations are over

  • Confidence-building measures,
  • Establishing a functioning "hot line",
  • Establishment of reliable command and control structures,
  • Precautions against accidental rocket launches,
  • a rational nuclear doctrine adapted to regional conditions on both sides

indispensable. The transfer of experiences from American-Soviet cooperation, despite the continued antagonism during the Cold War, is only possible to a very limited extent: it should, however, be analyzed precisely to determine which knowledge can be transferred, if modified, to the relationship between India and Pakistan.

In view of the regional conflicts in South Asia and the trend towards the decentralization of international security systems since the end of the Cold War, a regional security system in South Asia appears to be highly desirable. This could include external powers, as happens in the Regional Forum of the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN-ARF). This could possibly build on the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) founded in 1985, but its results have so far been sobering. The establishment of the SAARC was initiated by Bangladesh in order to include India in a forum in which it has to sit down with all of its neighbors. The informal talks between the heads of state and government at the SAARC summit are nevertheless at least important confidence-building measures.

In mid-October, the State Secretaries for Foreign Affairs of India and Pakistan met in Islamabad to discuss the Kashmir conflict and the security situation following open nuclearization. As expected, there were no concrete results, but both sides underlined their commitment to reducing the risk of conflict by building trust. The next round of talks is to take place in New Delhi in February 1999. After this meeting there was the first telephone conversation between the Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his Indian counterpart Nawaz Sharif. The most important topic of conversation was building trust and building a security architecture for South Asia.

The road to such a security architecture that is acceptable to all states of the Indian subcontinent will undoubtedly be long and arduous. It is encouraging, however, that there is a growing willingness to take it seriously. This project deserves and needs every possible international support.