In the annual assessment of the United States Director of National Intelligence India Pakistan and India China have been identified as, “potential conflicts between states that could spillover with repercussions that may require immediate U.S. attention”.
This appears to be based on the ongoing military postures that have been adopted by the militaries of the nations and friction that could spark an escalation. Another factor could be the nuclear status of the three countries.
While China and India have a No First Use nuclear doctrine which has been reiterated from time to time, in the case of Pakistan there is a degree of ambiguity. Islamabad claims full spectrum deterrence – including sub strategic nuclear weapons colloquially named as Nasr -battlefield rockets.
The possibility of outbreak of a conflict erupting between India and the two adversaries will have to be assessed based not just on the triggers which have been realistically estimated in the DNI Report but also on the confidence building measures existing and the escalation matrix that is envisaged.
While the War in Ukraine has possibly led sceptics questioning that escalation occurs in a step by step fashion or a ladder, the possibility of exponentiality needs to be discussed.
Finally, the premise by the DNI that these conflicts will require intervention by the United States needs to be analysed.
The DNI predicates outbreak of conflict between India and China based on the, “lethal clash,” in 2020 and “expanded military postures by both India and China along the disputed border,” as well as legacy of friction on the Line of Actual Control possibly referring to episodes in 2013 [Depsang] and 2017 [Doklam].
This impression is no doubt reinforced by attempt by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on December 09 last year to seize an Indian forward post in Yangtse in the Towang Sector of Arunachal Pradesh.
At the same time there are several confidence building measures [CBMs] in place at the military to military level that have defused the conflict situation in real time be it at Galwan in June 2020 or Yangtse in 2021. Till these CBMs are working possibility of escalation will be limited to an unintended clash which generates high level of casualties leading to political pressure on either side to act.
Interestingly from time to time, India and China have clearly reiterated that they are capable of managing the contentions bilaterally and outside intervention is not necessary, but the DNI claims that as, “the risk of armed confrontation between two nuclear powers that might involve direct threats to U.S. persons and interests, and calls for U.S. intervention”.
In the case of escalation between India and China, the DNI predicates that as, “Pakistan has a long history of supporting anti-India militant groups, and under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is more likely than in the past to respond with military force to perceived or real Pakistani provocations”.
The flash points identified are a terrorist attack resulting in large number of casualties or violence in Jammu and Kashmir. The latter scenario appears highly unlikely for now given the fact that the interna security situation in Kashmir is not potentially escalatory in the short term.
Inasmuch as a terrorist attack directed by Pakistan supported groups in Kashmir or elsewhere, the possibility cannot be denied yet appears to be unlikely unless Pakistan seeks to externalise the present predicament of a multidimensional crisis – terror, economy and humanitarian laced with political instability.
While former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his book, “Never Give an Inch: Fighting for the America I Love,” has claimed that in the 2019 Pulwama-Balakot crisis when Indian Air Force targeted the Jaish e Mohammad terror infra in Pakistan the US had to intervene to prevent escalation, the DNI Report does not indicate the requirement of US intervention for now.
Unlike Case China, the United States does have a history of intervention in an India Pakistan crisis to prevent escalation.