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Nuclear South Asia: The World’s Third Tripwire

Guest: Shamila Chaudhary, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council

India and Pakistan celebrate 75 years of independence in August. The nuclear neighbors are plagued with a historic animosity that persists today. What drives it, and can tension be reduced?  

In 1947, free from British control, India and Pakistan split based on religious majorities – Hindu and Muslim. Soon thereafter, the two countries went to war over control of the Jammu and Kashmir provinces. Since then, the conflict escalated into confrontations on multiple fronts, with global implications. After all, both countries are nuclear powers. International mediation has not been able to resolve this long-lasting conflict. After Ukraine and Taiwan, is this region the world’s third tripwire?    

Shamila Chaudhary, former National Security Council expert, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council and President of the American Pakistan Foundation, joins to help make sense of this complex international issue. We asked, what is the root of the conflict? Chaudhary went back to 1947 and explained, “the boundaries were largely determined by British bureaucrats and South Asian political elites who saw some advantage in working with the British. Kashmir, which is a Muslim majority region in South Asia, was claimed both by the newly established Indian state and Pakistani state. […] The two countries are still disputing authority over Kashmir.” Chaudhary added, “The nuclear component is what should keep us up at night. And it’s the confrontation over Kashmir that repeatedly brings the two countries to the brink of escalation.”

With a conflict that has potentially deadly global consequences, why isn’t the international community more involved in lowering the temperature of this conflict? Chaudhary explained, “It’s a very complicated situation because India believes that authority over Kashmir is an internal matter. […] Meanwhile, Pakistan wants to internationalize the issue. […] With the absence of any kind of independent intermediary, it’s going to be very difficult.”

Over the years, international bodies and countries have attempted to mediate. However, our guest worries that this conflict is not getting enough attention today to keep it from escalating. Chaudhary expanded, “In the past, what has happened is [that] countries served as trusted intermediaries to de-escalate India and Pakistan. But the geopolitics of the region have changed. India and the United States are on one side now and the Pakistani and Chinese are on the other side. So, it’s going to be a lot harder to de-escalate.”

In her youth and social justice-focused segment, Téa Ivanovic asked about a lost generation of youth that either had no economic future and left or goes to the mountains to fight. She asked, “How do you return opportunity to the area?” Chaudhary responded, “Both India and Pakistan have consistently subjugated Kashmiri interests to their own national security agendas. They’ve become heavily militarized, heavily politicized. What’s keeping people down are draconian laws that encourage human rights abuses by security forces. There’s a lot of corruption and the economy has not been developed. […] The opportunity will come once there’s greater autonomy for Kashmiris to decide their own fate and it still hasn’t happened yet.”

At the same time, global alliances are shifting. China has heavily expanded its infrastructure investment in Pakistan. Altamar’s Muni Jensen asked, “What does China stand to gain there?” Chaudhary explains, “the bordering regions between China and Pakistan include militants that are anti-Chinese state, the Uyghurs and this border region of Xinjiang. The Chinese feel that greater involvement in Pakistan connects them more to the Pakistani security establishment, which can be helpful in containing the militant threat on its border.”

The Quad, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), is a regional security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. It’s an attempt to counter China’s influence in the area and create a powerful democratic bloc in an age of rising authoritarianism. So how is the Quad impacting those countries which are not obvious allies – like Pakistan? Chaudhary said, “The Pakistanis are uncomfortable with it because it, again, elevates their main competitor to the global stage. It also excludes Pakistan from a conversation about the Pacific, which it feels like it should very much be part of. And I think […] there’s some discomfort with the Quad from other countries which interpret the Quad as the US and others giving them an option – choose these democracies over China. I think a lot of these countries, they would prefer to just have both, they don’t want to have to make a choice.”

Altamar’s Peter Schechter brought the conversation to politics in India and Prime Minister Modi’s Party and other Hindu extremist rhetoric. He asked, “How does one get beyond this in India, and where are Indian politics going?” Chaudhary answered, “The rising tide of Hindu fundamentalism in India is really concerning. And, Modi has consistently consolidated his power around it, which I think is more worrisome. Modi views fundamentalist forces as important political stakeholders of his. As long as that is the case, we can expect more extremist rhetoric in Indian politics.”

We turned briefly to recent news and the assassination of al-Zawahiri in Pakistan. How is the assassination likely to affect already worsening US-Pakistan relations? Chaudhary answered, “the US took a very bold move of taking him out. It puts Pakistan in a very uncomfortable situation because they have a very close relationship with the Taliban. So that US-Pakistan tension will remain unresolved.” 

We ended, as we often do, with predictions. We asked if our guest was pessimistic or optimistic about the two countries. Chaudhary gave us a reason for both. She said, “If I’m looking at what is hopeful about both countries, I would say the idea that we can take advantage of the demographic opportunity, the human capital that is so dynamic in the countries. But I get much more pessimistic when I think about the socioeconomic development needs and how the populations have been underserved by their governments.”

Can the two countries resolve a 75-year-old conflict? Can the international community get more involved without upsetting India? Find out more by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here

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