We risk having nuclear proxies in South Asia

    The Writer

    The ‘Quad’ summit held on 12TH March by the United States, Japan, India and Australia, did not take so much media space like a G7 summit would, but it could not go unnoticed. The alliance has been there for a while now, but engagements on that had not reached direct head of states/head of governments levels until now. In a video conference the United States President was seen interacting with his counterparts on the other side of the Pacific and beyond. Theme: China’s behavior in the Asia Pacific neighborhood—even though China was not mentioned.

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    The warm relations the United States has with each of these states cannot be new. Japan has been close to the world power at least since the end of the Second World War. Australia has been a natural ally for a long time. India and the US have had good strategic partnership albeit taking a non-aligned position during the Cold War.

    India is not in the best of moments as far as its security is concerned. It is in a fatal clash with China over a border dispute in the Himalayas. The dispute has been a long standing one, but the recent skirmishes and the subsequent near-unprecedented militarization of the area has observers sit on tenterhooks. Border disputes are not unusual in world politics, but having it with a recognized growing power which is constantly modernizing its security forces, will give anyone sleepless nights. India is not a walk over, however, experts generally agree that its military needs retooling in a face-off with an adversary of China’s kind. A dangerous strategic equalizer, however, is the fact that they both possess nuclear weapons. The elevation of the summit of the four therefore connotes a heightened interest by the United States to help its ally confront a common enemy. There is much problem with that.

    The adversary about whom this conference was central also has strong ties with Pakistan—a nuclear state that also has a long standing geo-religious conflict with India. Yes, two nuclear Great powers have rather weaker allies who also possess nuclear weapons and share a disputed boundary. The world should pay attention, as there is a high possibility of having a proxy conflict in South Asia that will involve nuclear states at all levels.

    The growing influence of China on Pakistan on the other side of the divide is of relevance to appreciating the volatile state of affairs. In less than three decades after India had had the nuclear weapon in 1974, Pakistan obtained its own in the late 1990s. With that and as non-signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Indo-Pakistani tension was nuclearized in ways that stunned international pacifists.

    Pakistan’s bond with China is that which allows the underdog—obviously the latter—to benefit from the former’s veto privilege on the security council for its diplomatic protection. It also allows Pakistan to tap into the technological feats of its ally. The two countries have joint projects on the production of conventional weapons including aircraft.

    The relationship between the United States and Pakistan has not been belligerent per se, however, China’s has proven to be more reliable over time. The US after September 11 had the full cooperation of Pakistan and its self-directed military in invading Afghanistan. It doled out billions of dollars to the developing country in economic and military aid. In spite of this, America has not surpassed the financial and arms supply record of China in Pakistan.

    The well-known belt and road initiative by China to consolidate strategic partnership and flow of resources from around the world, did include Pakistan. This and other financial commitments by China to the struggling economy, has created a kind of dependency that some experts believe, would be difficult to untangle. There are some concerns that China may eventually take over an important port in Pakistan as part of some financial arrangement to the disquietude of some skeptics. A country that has the power to take over the asset of another, as a result of financial agreements, can equally get to decide or influence how that country uses its arms—including nuclear arms. Especially when they consider themselves military allies, that is more probable than one can ordinarily agree.

    In all these are other factors that further exacerbate the situation and make the likelihood of miscalculation with nuclear consequences ever more unpredictable. First, are the personalities of state actors involved in the steeping situation. For some reason both India and Pakistan appear to have heads of government who are populist and also seem to personalize political power. This has the propensity to make conflict decisions a function of egos rather than rationality. None of them is Hitler, however, both Narendra Modi and Imran Khan have personalities that set them apart from their more establishment-oriented predecessors. Khan has been a play boy sports man whose ascension to power had a lot to do with himself. Modi, a Hindu nationalist had immersed himself in controversies as a strongman provincial leader and often ran afoul with the West before becoming Prime Minister.

    When Nuclear states have populist leaders in charge, with more powerful allies, (US and China) bent on supporting them to outdo each other, the world cannot be at ease. For instance, during some air skirmishes in 2019 between India and Pakistan, it came out clear the former was outdone by its long-time rival. An Indian pilot was captured and displayed on TV. That humiliation later contributed to Modi unilaterally declaring the disputed territory of Kashmir as a province of India a few months later. The role of ego cannot be discounted in this circumstance. That makes any of these leaders having a feeling of being backed strongly by more powerful states worrisome.

    Like that of Egypt, Thailand and Myanmar, Pakistan’s military has significant autonomy that almost immune it from civilian control. This factor is more likely to make the nuclear power more malleable to outside control. With that level of autonomy, the institution responsible for managing what seems to be an unending fracas with India, can engage in actions it deems fit for the country. A long-standing military cooperation that involves joint production of equipment has made the Generals heavily dependent on China for their own legitimacy. Their raison d’etre is to protect Pakistan against Indian aggression, and China is helping technologically and financially to achieve that. In an all-out war with India, China will most likely expect Pakistan as an active participant on its side. The Pakistani army may be willing to side with its powerful patron even if the local population has a different view.

    The United States will equally expect that from India in a similar situation. How else will there be a Quad alliance. India’s Generals have a more civilian oversight as their actions, like most democracies, are sanctioned by the political class. In spite of this, the general consensus that it needs retooling which can be furnished by the more powerful military-industrial complex of the US, makes it vulnerable to outside influence in its engagements with regional rivals. It is possible for the US to use the largest democracy of the world as proxy in its hostile engagement with China—the largest autocracy. That is not a good omen for a nuclear power.

    On a terrestrial level, India seems to be at a disadvantage. China, India and Pakistan share common land boundaries with each other. While China’s border with the two countries remains generally rugged—thanks to the Himalayas—that between India and Pakistan is easily accessible in the event of war. That is, China may use its more susceptible ally as an easy corridor to enter India in its invasion plans should it find itself in a war. With India overwhelmed in such a scenario, the use of Nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out entirely, as last resort.

    Pakistan and India just after independence in 1947 disagreed on issues that have resulted in a number of wars between them. In the course of this cold relations, each has pursued a nuclear program and obtained the bomb. Despite intermittent efforts to improve relations, recent events have revealed a downward spiral. What is more problematic, however, is a surge in the influence of China and the United States currently, over these countries. Armed with nuclear warheads, this influence may turn out to be nuclear states being used by more powerful powers to achieve their strategic goals against each other. The posturing of the foremost leaders of the South Asian states has not been helpful. With the possibility of miscalculation with nuclear consequences, it will serve the interest of international security if dialogue is encouraged in resolving differences between the countries instead of making them unfortunate proxies. The United States and China have started talking about their differences as I write—it should continue.


    By: Fidel Amakye Owusu


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