US, China and root cause of terrorism in South Asia

(Samjhauta Express carrying some 150 passengers left Lahore railway station for New Delhi on March 4, 2019)

There were three key elements in the remarks at the press briefing in Washington on Tuesday by Robert Palladino, deputy spokesperson of the US State Department, regarding India-Pakistan tensions, while flagging that “there’s a lot of private diplomacy that’s going on right now” and there has been “continuous high-level contact” between Washington and the two regional capitals. 

Palladino said the US continues to urge India and Pakistan to “continue to take steps to de-escalate the situation”; two, de-escalation should include “direct communication” between the two countries; and, three, any further military activity “will exacerbate the situation.” (Daily Times

Indeed, India and Pakistan have taken a few steps lately to “de-escalate”: the bi-weekly Samjhauta Express between Delhi and Lahore has resumed its schedule; barter trade resumed on the Line of Control; consultations on the proposed Kartarpur Corridor are on track; and, Pakistan has “decided to send back” its envoy to Delhi as part of its “increased diplomatic efforts.”   

However, the situation on the LoC remains tense, although the threat of war has receded. The Defence Ministry in Delhi accused Pakistani army to have “introduced heavy calibre weapons” along the LoC and targeted both Indian military posts and civilian areas with mortar bombs and heavy artillery fire, which “drew swift and precise response” from Indian side. But MoD also acknowledged, “Post our warning to the Pakistan Army not to target civilian areas, the overall situation along the LoC remains relatively calm.” 

The big question is about “direct communication” between India and Pakistan — both in form and content. In principle, it should suit India that the emphasis is on bilateral contacts. The return of the Pakistani high commissioner to Delhi signifies that Islamabad is keen to open high-level communication. How long can Delhi avoid engaging Pakistan? 

Make no mistake, the US (and China) has become a stakeholder in India-Pakistan dialogue. Clearly, the risk of escalation and a potential nuclear flashpoint worries Washington (and Beijing.) Equally, Washington’s immediate concern is that India-Pakistan tensions do not derail the Afghan peace process. In the words of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative, the latest round of talks in Doha last week with the Taliban has been “productive” but involves “slow steady steps towards understanding and eventually peace”. He said “all four key issues” are on the table — withdrawal of  US troops, security guarantees, ceasefire and intra-Afghan dialogue. 

Indeed, Pakistani cooperation is crucial in the upcoming sensitive phase of the Afghan peace talks. But in overarching terms, the recent crisis also highlighted that the Indian propensity to retaliate to terror strikes infinitely raises the risk of escalation. Simply put, India-Pakistan relations have become the concern of the international community. 

Does it suit the Indian political leadership to move toward engaging Pakistan? The point is, any “de-escalation” that brings down tensions will deprive the BJP of a plank with seamless possibilities to project PM Modi as the “Iron Prime Minister” and hype up jingoism in the upcoming election campaign. Whereas, de-escalation means public attention might shift from national security, and the range of burning issues in India’s political economy surge on the centre stage. The Rafale controversy has become an Albatross for Modi. 

Besides, once the tensions with Pakistan come down, questions are bound to be raised about the raison d’être of India’s decision to attack Pakistan on February 26. What has it achieved? Indian analysts unilaterally conclude that it will have the salutary effect of deterrence. But there is no empirical evidence to show that.  At any rate, the western media reports on the military developments have not only been highly damaging, but they also insinuate that Modi government may have resorted to dissimulation or plain deception in an attempt to create a false narrative. 

It is in this complicated backdrop that spokesman Palladino’s guarded remarks hinting at the US predicament need to be understood. The former director for South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council in Washington Joshua White has written in the Atlantic magazine this week:

“India’s decisions since 2016 to retaliate against terrorist provocations are both politically explicable and emotionally satisfying. But they have also had the effect of raising the minimum, politically acceptable threshold of response in a way that makes future crises riskier… For this reason, the recent crisis should prompt questions about the wisdom and sustainability of telegraphing that the United States will tacitly support a major act of Indian retaliation but will disapprove of further escalation by New Delhi even if Pakistan raises the stakes with a counterstrike.”

“But at the very least, the February incidents should prompt U.S. planners to press New Delhi for more substantive U.S.-India conversations on crisis management; to find ways to publicly intimate that U.S. support for India during a crisis is in principle assured but in practice not unbounded; and to encourage their Indian counterparts to undertake realistic assessments of the value of military actions that generate more political fervor than actual deterrence.”  

Fundamentally, China too is in the same predicament as the US. It stands to reason that Washington is in touch with Beijing regarding the tense situation in South Asia. 

At a media briefing in Beijing on Wednesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang avoided a direct answer to a straightforward question as to whether or not Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou, who visited Islamabad earlier in the week would also travel to Delhi.  

Beijing has advised Pakistan and India to “demonstrate goodwill, meet each other halfway, properly settle differences through dialogues, and improve bilateral relations.” But Lu Kang also advised the international community to make “objective assessment and recognition” of Pakistan’s latest steps against terrorist groups, which are “in line with its long-term efforts to fight terrorism and contribute to the international counter-terrorism cause.” 

This should dispel any illusions in Delhi that Beijing is about to pressure Islamabad on terrorism. In fact, apropos the move in the UN Security Council to brand the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as global terrorist, Lu was categorical that there is no shift in China’s stance. To quote Lu,

“Security Council and its subsidiary bodies have explicit standards and rules on working procedures. China is participating in consultations in strict compliance with these standards and rules. You are surely aware that multilateral discussions of these issues call for a serious and responsible attitude. China’s attitude shows its strong sense of responsibility and is conducive to the real and lasting resolution of relevant issues.” 

Be that as it may, the bottom line is that Lu at yesterday’s briefing underscored, inter alia, China’s “important and consistent view” regarding the “complicated factors” that engender terrorism. Lu said, “we believe that to eradicate terrorism, we need to treat both symptoms and root causes.” 

Most certainly, the message would have gone home in Delhi. Importantly, Lu probably brought himself to say something that Palladino just couldn’t the previous day. The Hindutva belief that the sweeping spread of global jihadism in the recent times has snuffed out the sympathy for Kashmiri separatism in the world community is incredibly simplistic.