The Balakot air strikes have provided a big opening for India, which, if exploited effectively, have the potential to fundamentally alter the rules of play that have disadvantaged India in negotiations not just with Pakistan, but also China.
Conversely, if matters are allowed to drift, then New Delhi runs the risk of letting the world re-hyphenate India and Pakistan with calls for further deescalation and talks. What is needed now is to break out of this trap through proactive diplomacy. For that, it’s important to push back and stress on the China-Pakistan nexus — the only strategic hyphenation of consequence that continues to give the Pakistani army the latitude to nurture terrorist groups as fifth columnists against India.
The Lying of Control
For long, China and Pakistan have combined to lock India in a negotiation trap. When it comes to the boundary talks, China starts with the assumption that the territory under its control is not even up for discussion, never mind under dispute. The only negotiation is about territory under Indian jurisdiction, be it in Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh or elsewhere. Similarly, Pakistan’s working assumption is that terror groups under its control can carry out attacks at will against India, knowing well that all it has to do is call for talks.
There’s now an opportunity to counter this playbook. The first step is to leverage the current consensus against terror emanating from Pakistan, where the international community is no longer willing to ratify a distinction between an act of terror in Kashmir and mainland India. Which is why there was no appetite for objecting to India undertaking an anti-terrorist air strike on Pakistani territory.
This shift was best reflected in the UN Security Council (UNSC) statement on the Pulwama attack. It was rare to have an incident in J&K in which security personnel were killed being condemned as an act of terror. This hadn’t happened earlier because Kashmir’s ‘disputed’ status came in the way and the UN didn’t want to appear taking sides.
There’s no such inhibition now. Even China as UNSC permanent member, despite sending the draft of the statement back and forth eight times, had to concede to the consensus among the other 14 UNSC members. Significantly, Beijing had to withdraw its objection to the mention of ‘Jammu and Kashmir’ in the statement, instead of ‘Indian-Occupied Kashmir’ or the ‘Indian side of Kashmir’.
This shift is further underscored by general acceptability that Pakistan’s response to the Balakot strike was both unjustified and escalatory. As a result, Islamabad came under immense external pressure to immediately return Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman to India.
As for China, it will be tested on the stand it takes at the UNSC on the fresh proposal to proscribe Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar. But even if it changes its stand, the gesture can’t serve as a barometer for future behaviour. India, thus, has to raise the bar on all countries, including China, to place checks on Pakistan as the fountainhead of terrorism.
This means putting a lid on the use of US-made Nato weapons against India. Pakistan’s use of US-supplied F-16s mounted with advanced medium range air-to-air missiles (Amraams) against India post-Balakot is an embarrassment for the US, which has such strong cooperation on terror with India. The Donald Trump government is apparently evaluating the matter seriously, including how to address what the Oval Office is already calling ‘legacy issues’.
No Longer Sweet F-16
India has the opportunity to build the case that foreign powers supplying weapons to Pakistan must now put a condition that they will not allow their weapons they supply to be deployed against India. And, if violated, Pakistan ought to attract a range of penalties. Any US action on Pakistan for using F-16s could set a significant precedent. Which is why India must call for action, and not just denouncement, from the US.
Other powers like Russia, France, Britain and the rest of Europe mostly endorse the Indian perception on Pakistan’s nourishment to terror groups. While some of them, like the US, may want to keep the Pakistani army effective against the Taliban, they would surely not like their ordnance strewn on Indian territory. Besides, all these countries have an eye on the growing opportunities in the Indian defence market.
China, thus, is likely to be the only supplier to Pakistan that India may not be able to influence. But an effort such as this will again force Beijing to consider if it wants to stand alone with Pakistan on terror. That doesn’t augur well for its great power ambitions. After all, China pulled back from Dokalam because the stakes were much higher in holding a successful Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit.
The almost spontaneous support India has received post-Balakot has demonstrated that today’s world has no time for ‘nuances of terrorism’. It also recognises that Pakistan’s pretence now stands exposed.
The challenge for India is to convince the world that Pakistan cannot be part of any solution because it’s at the heart of the problem, one that has to be addressed collectively. And, in that context, continuous pressure must also be brought on China to reassess its terms of engagement with Pakistan. In short, there’s much to be done beyond Balakot to translate this action into strategic gains, rather than just quarrel over spoils.