Detente over Kashmir following decades of conflict?
As recently as early 2019, all signs indicated that war between the two nuclear powers India and Pakistan was on the horizon. After an attack on a military convoy in Indian-administered Kashmir, the Indian Air Force dropped bombs on an alleged terrorist camp in Pakistan in early 2019. Despite Indian propaganda claiming that hundreds of extremists had been killed, the attack turned out to have been a failure. The bombs widely missed their target and landed in the forest. In retaliation, the Pakistani Air Force carried out attacks on the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, shooting down an Indian fighter jet during an air battle and taking its pilot prisoner.
A few days later, reports and images of Pakistan handing over the pilot to India were splashed all over the media. At the LoC (Line of Control), the de-facto border between the two countries in Kashmir, the soldiers of both countries engaged in heavy fighting. Even though international pressure prevented a further escalation of the violence, the tension between the two countries remained. The Indian government's revocation of Kashmir's special status in August 2019 merely added fuel to the fire. People in both countries saw little hope of peace.
So it came as a surprise to many when a ceasefire was announced and that Pakistani Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, called on India in a speech in March 2021 to "bury the past and move forward".
A short time later, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended greetings to his Pakistani counterpart, Imran Khan, on the occasion of Pakistan Day. Speaking in an interview soon after, Pakistan's foreign minister said that Pakistan was willing to enter into wide-ranging negotiations, as long as India was "willing to revisit" changes to the autonomy status of Indian Kashmir. Despite the martial rhetoric of the previous months, all of this heralded a period of detente. But why the sudden change of heart?
Secret diplomacy and change of strategy
There are several factors at play here. On the one hand, diplomats from the United Arab Emirates seem to have been active in the background, busily working to de-escalate the conflict – at least this is what the UAE ambassador to the U.S. claims. And indeed, it does appear that there were negotiations between the two countries that were mediated by the UAE. The UAE has traditionally had good relations with both countries. However, there are also signs – at least for the present – that both countries are changing their strategies. Both India and Pakistan are focusing on other challenges.
For India, the conflict with China on its northern border has gained in significance in recent years. The course of the border between China and India has always been a bone of contention and even led to the Sino-Indian War in 1962. The Indian army was defeated in this relatively short war and India lost Aksai Chin, a border region between Indian Kashmir and Tibet, to the Chinese. After several rounds of negotiations, a tacit understanding on the status quo of the LoAC (Line of Actual Control) was reached, an understanding to which both countries largely adhered in the decades that followed.
The construction of roads and military bases along the disputed border – by both India and China – meant that the conflict flared up once again. Both countries regularly accuse each other of border violations. Finally, the construction of a new road along the border to Aksai Chin was the straw that broke the camel's back. China claims the territory for itself. For India, this strategically important road is a supply route for the new Dolat Beg Oldie air force base in northern Kashmir. In June 2020, soldiers from both armies got involved in brawls at the Galwan river. Fists and truncheons flew.
Dozens of soldiers from both sides died in the first major border conflict since the 1960s. At other points along the frontier too there have been repeated clashes over the course of the 3,000-km-long border. For India, China has long developed into a much bigger challenge than Pakistan. In recent years, many Indian analysts criticised the excessive concentration of military personnel and resources on the country's western border with Pakistan, calling it a tactical error.
The reason being that during this time, China was easily able to build its military infrastructure along the border with India, thereby giving itself a strategic edge. In order to counter this development, India must now shift its resources and adapt its geopolitical strategy. In military terms, India undoubtedly lags well behind China.
The USA is strengthening India in this conflict in an effort to contain Chinese ambitions, which – as everybody knows – is seen by Washington as the greatest challenge to its hegemony.
The situation is compounded by the catastrophic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic for India. With millions of infected citizens, a healthcare system pushed to breaking point, and the as yet unforeseeable economic consequences of the pandemic, Prime Minister Modi's government has entirely new domestic challenges to cope with. The criticism of the BJP government's crisis management is growing and the Hindu Nationalists face the prospect of greater defeats in upcoming elections. A conflict with Pakistan would only aggravate the situation.