India-Pakistan Tensions: India’s Expanded Toolkit

On September 28, the Indian Army initiated a military strike against terror camps along the Line of Control in Kashmir. The exact nature of this action, as well as its location, remains vague. But the “surgical strike,” as termed by India’s director general of Military Operations, has been embraced across India. This news comes a week after terrorists targeted an Indian Army base in Kashmir, leaving 19 Indian soldiers dead. It is unclear whether India’s military strike will lead to a further escalation of tensions with Pakistan. Even before the strike, however, India had been displaying an expanded set of options for dealing with Pakistan, compared to previous times of escalated tension such as 1999 and 2002.

In recent decades, both sides employed a fairly standard set of tools when tensions boiled over—ranging from expelling diplomats, cutting off transportation linkages, triggering troop mobilizations at the border, all the way up to combat operations such as the brief Kargil War in 1999. The usual barbs were traded in speeches during the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, though this is to be expected even during periods of relative calm between India and Pakistan.

However, following a number of recent provocations that India has linked to Pakistan-based militant groups, the government of prime minister Narendra Modi has employed a different set of tools to respond to these incitements. These tools may not be altogether new, but the fact that they have been the focus of India’s response to Pakistan’s incitements marks a different approach—one that surely has Islamabad on its toes.

First, India has shown a willingness to pull South Asia away from the traditional convening group, the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Founded in 1985, SAARC has never quite lived up to its potential, largely because its two largest members, India and Pakistan, have rarely been in a political position to work together. Earlier this week India announced it would withdraw from an upcoming SAARC meeting in Pakistan. India has refocused its regional connectivity efforts on sub-groupings that do not involve Pakistan, such as the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) Program, the Bay of Bengal Initiative on Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), and the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative. To varying degrees, these groups have been able to move forward with new agreements that should increase connectivity and cooperation among interested South Asian nations. Several South Asian nations have conveyed concerns about Pakistan’s role in the recent attacks against India. Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Afghanistan joined India in announcing they would not join the SAARC summit in Pakistan in November.

Third, India has shown resurgent interest in strengthening ties with Afghanistan, creating a stronger link with the nation on Pakistan’s other major border. India has provided crucial development assistance to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. But over the last year India has looked to expand its work in new areas. Late last year, India agreed to provide four Mi-25 attack helicopters to the Afghan army—India’s first direct military assistance to Afghanistan. India has also re-committed to the development of Iran’s Chabahar Port, which will augment India’s connectivity to Afghanistan. The United States and India have also recently agreed to revive the moribund U.S.-India-Afghanistan trilateral discussions.Second, India has shown its increased capability to initiate strikes against militant groups outside its borders. In June 2015, Indian troops reportedly crossed into Myanmar to conduct a raid on a militant camp, less than a week after the militant group killed 18 Indian soldiers. While there has been some reasoned speculation that the raid may not have involved crossing into Myanmar territory, the signal to Pakistan was pretty clear—India had the ability to take a limited fight to militant camps.

Fourth, India is engaging the United States more aggressively than ever before on security cooperation. Recent highlights include the January 2015 “ U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region,” progress under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), and the June 2016 “ Framework for the U.S. India Cyber Relations.” Engaging the United States has helped strengthen those American voices that have been calling for a reduction in military support to Pakistan based on our interest in strengthening relations with India. Such calls were far easier for Washington to ignore when we had little progress in our security relationship with India.

Fifth, India is reviewing its “Most Favored Nation (MFN)” trade policy towards Pakistan, in place since 1996. Despite positive noises, Pakistan has never reciprocated by granting India MFN. A cabinet decision on revoking Pakistan’s MFN status has been postponed, but is on the cards as another modest tool against Pakistan. As the Atlantic Council pointed out in its 2014 report, India and Pakistan: The Opportunity Cost of Conflict, most bilateral trade already takes place via third countries such as Dubai and Singapore. Still, revoking existing agreements is a fairly significant measure.

Sixth, India has hinted that it would consider altering the terms of its water sharing agreement with Pakistan under the 56-year old Indus Water Treaty. The Indus Water Treaty has often been highlighted as a rock of relative stability in India-Pakistan ties even when other aspects of the relationship hit various peaks and valleys. As we have seen within India’s own borders recently, restricting water can be a trigger for violence. So unilaterally altering a water sharing arrangement may be viewed as a particularly powerful escalation tool in a water-starved region. Still, India has signaled that such an action is under review.

While the Indian Ministry of Defence has stated it does not plan additional strikes, it is not clear whether the current tensions between India and Pakistan will escalate further. There is certainly little expectation that Pakistani militants, under varying degrees of control by Pakistan’s military, will be deterred from initiating further attacks. But the costs to Islamabad of supporting terrorism are increasing, and taking different forms than before.

Richard M. Rossow is a senior fellow and holds the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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