Although the Kashmir region knows a long history of turmoil between Pakistan and India following the partition of British India in 1947, the conflict has intensified over the course of the last months. After 40 Indian military personnel were killed after a bomb attack in Kashmir, India sought retaliation for terrorist activity in the region and crossed the line for the first time since the 1971 war. India carried out a so-called pre-emptive strike against one of the largest terrorist training camps in Pakistan and claimed that 300 people died in the attack. However, the Pakistan government claims the attacks had not affected anyone and Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan stated that “Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing”. The bold rhetoric and the fact that both India and Pakistan ratcheted up involvement in the conflict is due to compelling domestic reasons. While for Khan, the revived conflict is a first test in foreign policy, the conflict is of relevance to Prime Minister Modi as he is preparing for elections in May and the conflict is a chance to project himself as a strong leader. Modi sent out the message that India is safe in his hands, boosting his muscular image in the electoral strategy of Hindu nationalism in order to climb in the polls. This is very much needed, since his party already lost three regional elections, and since the nation struggles with stagnating job growth and agricultural crisis in the country.
Next to new escalation in the conflict between the archrivals and nuclear powers, the region is subject to great power play. Tibet is among the bordering countries of the disputed region. Pakistan has collaborated with China extensively on the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). While Pakistan sees China as a counterweight to India, Pakistan has served as a channel for China’s influence in the Muslim world to China. And thus, although China is calling for de-escalation of the conflict, it defends Pakistan against India. For instance, China continues to protect Masood Azhar, the leader of the Jaish-e-Mohammed group believed responsible for the Kashmir attack killing 40 Indians. Moreover, the U.S. is another superpower keeping a close eye on the unfolding conflict in the region, as it has been clashing with China over Belt And Road Initiative projects in Pakistan. Pakistan is replacing the U.S. with China as their key power in the region and following the removal of U.S. military from Afghanistan, Pakistan is opening and hosting talks with the Taliban. The developments unfolding in Kashmir thus already looks more like a proxy war than a regional conflict.
Another factor that is shaping the conflict between the bordering countries is water. As India and Pakistan were torn apart at Partition, this included critical water resources that had been shared under British India. In an interview with Foreign Policy, the writer of ‘Unruly Waters’, expert in how water has shaped South Asia’s history and politics, Sunil Amrith, the conflict is describes as the ‘mother of all transnational water conflicts’. He says the water conflict over the Indus River, which runs straight through Kashmir, is an intense one since the control of water has long been central to many visions of nationhood in India and continues to be so under Modi. Although a conflict over water is too risky for both parties, if the tensions in the region and the slide towards unilateralism continues, local people on both sides of the border will be carrying the real costs. However, Pakistan is a water-stressed nation and thus this is the weak spot India can hit its rival. It is in this light, that India’s recent move to fund the building of a dam near Kabul could be seen as a way to reduce water flow to Pakistan.
Although the developments in Kashmir are fast-moving and the underlying reasons span wider than regional ones, the conflict is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. However, chances are small that it will escalate into a war again. The superpowers active in the region have their own interests in keeping the region stable. The U.S. has a strong interest in trying to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, India is its major defense partner and Pakistan has been a longtime partner. For China, the CPEC requires a stable region. Both superpowers will use the threat of diplomatic and economic sanctions in order to avoid escalation.
- More violence in the Kashmir region with Modi increasing aggression as an electoral strategy
- Unfolding tensions between superpowers China, U.S. in the region
- Water crisis in Pakistan
RISKS MARKED ON THE RISK RADAR AS NUMBER 2: Kashmir conflict