Taming Indo-Pakistani Tensions: New Regional Players

By Donald Camp —

India-Pakistan daily border ceremony between the towns of Wagah and Attari. Source: Wikimedia user Stefan Krasowski, used under a creative commons license.

The drill used to be predictable. Since the nuclear era dawned in South Asia, any sign of border tensions between India and Pakistan would set off alarm bells in the foreign ministries of the United States and Europe. Statements of concern and calls for prudence and restraint followed. The U.S. president and secretary of state would call their counterparts in both countries and offer to send high-level envoys – usually at the ministerial or deputy ministerial–level — and other countries would follow suit. During the crisis between 2001 and 2002, when tensions were extraordinarily high, Western envoys were sent sequentially and continuously, on the assumption that neither side would escalate while a foreign dignitary was in the region. In recent years, while the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union (EU) still play a crucial diplomatic role, additional players have emerged as a constraining force on Indo-Pak escalation — China and Saudi Arabia.

Changing U. S. Role

In past flare-ups, Pakistan would urge U.S. envoys to mediate with India to end the “core cause” of conflict– the Kashmir dispute. India would reject any foreign mediation of this “internal issue” and would demand that Pakistan take action to punish terrorists responsible for the most recent attacks. India also reassured foreign visitors that India and Pakistan understood each other better than did the outside world and therefore there would not be miscalculations leading to uncontrollable escalation of the situation. However, with the world changing, this paradigm is changing as well.

After the brutal attack in Kashmir on February 14, there were statements of condemnation; the U.S. embassy in Delhi was particularly quick off the mark and the press offices of the White House and the State Department followed suit some hours later. (The United Kingdom, usually a regular participant in these exercises, was consumed by Brexit.) In sum, there were fewer phone calls and no air dashes to the region.

Press reports from India have said that the United States did get involved, quietly, with calls from CENTCOM Commander General Joseph Votel to the Pakistani chief of army staff urging release of captured Indian Air Force wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman. The U.S.-Pakistan military relationship has been close for years; the military ties still provide a useful channel to the influential Pakistani military.

But it is not just the western world that has an interest in a stable and peaceful South Asia, and the capability to help bring that about. Two other countries have inordinate influence in the region, and appear not shy about using that clout privately. Both Saudi Arabia and China sent senior officials to the region in 2019 to preach restraint.

Saudi Arabia’s Role in South Asia

Saudi money serves as important support for Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the terrorist group which claimed responsibility for the February 14 attack. But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia, a near-pariah in the West, was greeted with pomp and enthusiasm on a previously-scheduled trip to both Pakistan and India, days after the attack. Pakistan, whose faltering economy is increasingly dependent on Saudi investments and oil subsidies, likely requested that MBS help Pakistan on Kashmir. This request was parroted by the Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir who said, while in Islamabad with MBS, that Saudi Arabia wanted to see if there was a way to resolve tensions and offered to help in de-escalation. Indian press reports carried little about MBS’ discussions in Delhi on India-Pakistan but it is hard to believe that India did not outline its concerns own about terrorists based in Pakistan and urge the Saudi Kingdom to use its considerable influence across the border.

Interestingly, the Saudi foreign minister returned to both countries in early March in a trip the Saudis said was intended to “preempt anything that might affect the region’s security and stability.”  The trip recalled the U.S. and European foreign ministers’ air dashes of the past.

China’s Role in South Asia

Saudi representatives are welcomed in both Islamabad and Delhi. The same cannot be said for Chinese envoys. India views China as totally committed to Pakistan’s policies, as demonstrated last week in the United Nations’ Security Council (UNSC) where China again played its traditional role of protecting Pakistan by putting a hold on the proposal in the UNSC to add JeM leader Masood Azhar to the UN’s terrorism list. Moreover, India faces its own well-documented territorial friction with China which flared up at Doklam in 2017.

Yet it is also undeniable that when China speaks, Pakistan listens. And China continues to demonstrate a strong interest in preventing war between India and Pakistan. State Councillor Wang Yi of China called for restraint and respect by both parties for each other’s territorial integrity.  Wang Yi met Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj at a previously-scheduled Russia/India/China trilat in Zhejiang that India used to put all three countries on record in opposition to terrorism. China sent Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou to Pakistan in early March around the same time as the Saudi minister. Press reports in Islamabad stressed his support for Pakistan’s restraint but the private conversations were undoubtedly more direct.

Both China and Saudi Arabia carry out their diplomacy more in private than do U.S. and EU envoys who work in the glare of a free press. But in today’s South Asia, their efforts to tamp down tensions, to carry messages and counsel calm cannot be ignored and should in fact be encouraged by all others with a vested interest in ensuring peace in South Asia.

Mr. Donald Camp is a senior associate (non-resident) of the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @donacamp.


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