Expert reaction: India-Pakistan tensions

India and Pakistan are in the midst of a crisis over the disputed Kashmir region. Both countries carried out air raids in each other’s territory for the first time since the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, leading to concerns over military escalation and calls for peaceful dialogue.

Here's what you need to know:

  • On February 14, more than 40 Indian soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing in Indian-administered territory in Kashmir, attributed to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad militant group. New Zealand released a statement condemning the attack.
  • India demanded a response from Pakistan, which denied any involvement in the attack.
  • On February 26, Indian warplanes crossed the ceasefire line, or “line of control”, dividing the Kashmir region and dropped bombs on what India said was a Jaish-e-Muhammad camp.
  • Pakistan responded on February 27 by sending planes across the line into Indian airspace, which were followed by Indian warplanes.
  • Pakistan said it shot down two Indian planes and is now holding one of the pilots. India has demanded the immediate return of the pilot. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has said the pilot will be released in a peace gesture.
  • Pakistan closed its airspace, disrupting international air routes.
  • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is campaigning ahead of the upcoming India general election.
  • New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has called for India and Pakistan to exercise restraint.

Here's what three New Zealand-based international relations experts had to say about the developing situation:

Robert Patman, Professor of International Relations, University of Otago:

Kashmir is the crucial issue here. India, being the bigger and more powerful party, controls two thirds of the disputed territory. Pakistan controls a third, and both claim sovereignty over the disputed region. It’s potentially a very dangerous situation.

In a sense, India is calling Pakistan’s bluff on its two-track approach to Kashmir. By using air-strikes, India is seeking to demonstrate that Pakistan’s covert support for a militant group - that is allegedly responsible for a suicide attack that killed 40 Indian military personnel in Kashmir - is both costly and counter-productive.

That fact this militant group is allowed to maintain its headquarters in Pakistan has deepened long-running concerns over the extraordinary influence of the country’s military in the making of Pakistan's foreign and security policies, and whether civilian governments in Islamabad exercise enough oversight in these areas.

One of the things that’s motivating India is that they feel that Pakistan’s two-track approach must be challenged. According to many Indian observers, Pakistan says it wants to use diplomacy to resolve the Kashmir issue while at the same time engaging in what the Indians see as covert support for terrorist organisations.

Now we have tit-for-tat airstrikes. Both sides are nuclear armed. Neither India or Pakistan has signed the non-proliferation treaty. They, along with North Korea and Israel, constitute the so-called 'hold-out’ states.

Clearly this situation is one that will trouble New Zealand, because it is committed to non-nuclear security for itself, and ultimately the abolition of nuclear weapons.

External parties such as the United States and Australia are calling for restraint. On previous occasions when relations between Pakistan and India have threatened to boil over, the US has gotten involved to try to cool things down and act as a mediator. If we are to go by the rhetoric of the Trump administration, it probably would not like to repeat the practice of intense mediation between the two conflicting parties. But the stakes are very high. There is a very real international concern that this military skirmish could escalate into a nuclear showdown.

Reuben Steff, Lecturer, Political Science and Public Policy Programme & Institute for Security and Crime Science, University of Waikato:

At the moment, the greatest risk of escalation likely comes from domestic political pressures. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a nationalist and will be loathe to back down while, at the same time, Pakistan's new President Imran Khan will not want to look weak so early in his tenure.

Those looking for something to be optimistic about should note that prior to Pakistan acquiring an overt nuclear weapons capability in 1998, the two sides had fought three wars against one another. But none have occurred since then. While both have engaged in a game of conventional ‘tit-for-tat’, nuclear weapons have arguably reduced the likelihood of a future full-scale war. At the same time, continued tensions, conventional military forces along their borders and militant and terrorist operations in Kashmir means there is a constant risk of military escalation. This could, if uncontrolled, lead to catastrophe for both states. Given their geographic proximity, even if one of them were able to conduct a 'successful' nuclear strike that avoided a retaliatory attack it would still suffer immense economic and environmental consequences, not to mention become an international pariah.

While the intentional use of nuclear weapons to 'bargain' during crises is fraught with danger, states can sometimes sleepwalk into a crisis and be taken over by events, as the Cuban Missile Crisis between the United States and Soviet Union revealed in 1962. We may very well be seeing this phenomena between India and Pakistan right now.

Arshad Ali, PhD Candidate, Politics, University of Otago:

Since independence in 1947, India and Pakistan have blamed each other for the unrest in Kashmir. Pakistan accused the Indian military of being involved in human rights violations and allowing them to continue with impunity, while India has blamed Pakistan for supporting the armed uprising and outlawed militant groups in Kashmir.

However, both countries have failed to address the core issues related to Kashmir conflict which often lead to escalation of war, including 1948, 1965, and the Kargil limited war. For instance, India has failed to address the concerns of the local Kashmiris who are alienated from Delhi, whereas Pakistan has continued to provide tacit support to militant groups operating in Kashmir.

The conflicts between India and Pakistan are political and can only be resolved through dialogue and peace seeking processes. The Pakistani Prime Minister has once again offered restraint from war and peace talks with India to resolve all the outstanding disputes. India must respond positively to find a political solution to the conflicts.