On the early morning of Tuesday 26th February 2019, twelve Indian Air Force Mirage 2000s took off on a historic mission. Barely half an hour later, a number of powerful bombs struck a Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist training camp in Balakot, Pakistan, obliterating the internals of much of the camp and causing considerable casualties.
The consequences geopolitically are unpredictable, but never again can India be dismissed as a country that will not robustly defend itself in the face of terrorist provocations. This is a significant psychological and political turning point for India’s leaders. Until this, the Indian government has been deeply reluctant to take substantial punitive action against terrorist outrages, fearing nuclear escalation. Nuclear armed Pakistan which hosts many terrorist tanzeems such as Lashkar-Taiba, and Jaish-e-Mohammed, had held most of the cards. It was able to successfully deter Indian retaliation to terrorism by threatening to escalate to all-out war, which in turn risked a nuclear exchange between the two countries considering superior Indian firepower. With the airstrike in Balakot, India has changed the rules of the game. The nuclear bluff of Pakistan has been called, opening the path to more such strikes in the future.
By closing much of its airspace over the past month, ostensibly due to fear of more Indian air strikes, it is actually losing money to the order of tens of millions of dollars a week.
It is no longer possible for the generals in Rawalpindi to brandish the nuclear sword, attempting to blackmail India into almost meekly accepting the constant menace of terrorism attacks. From now on, any future terrorist attacks will meet with disproportionate retaliation from Delhi. Interestingly the air strike itself was advertised by the Indian government as being ‘non-military’; while that adjective is open to interpretation, the best explanation for the use of that term is that the Indian government intended to strike terrorists only, and not the Pakistani military itself. By responding to the Indian air strike the next day with a failed air strike of its own, the Pakistani military effectively undertook a mission to avenge a strike on a terrorist camp. It openly fought on behalf of the terrorists. The political implications of such a development are enormous.
The Pakistani state had previously enjoyed plausible deniability, so that it could never be explicitly tied to acts of terrorism against India, or Iran and Afghanistan for that matter. By mounting an airstrike in India in defence of terrorists on February 27, Pakistan has established an overt political link between itself and Salafi terrorism, something which will have been noted by politicians, diplomats and international intelligence agencies. It will therefore become more vulnerable to both political pressure from outside powers as well as facing the likelihood of more military strikes by India. That would be a major strategic setback to it.
Another important development in the aftermath of the strikes is the way multiple powers appeared to implicitly support India. This is a significant paradigm shift because prior diplomatic reactions had often treated both victim (India) and perpetrator (Pak) of terrorism equally. The false equivalence attributed to India and Pakistan, particulary by western powers and China, which had long been the established diplomatic thought process in the past, has given way to something new. This is tremendously encouraging for India and a significant blow to the Pakistani narrative. Britain, France, the US and Australia extended strong diplomatic support to India by urging Pakistan to end the support for terrorism. This will give India’s efforts to isolate Pakistan in international forums a much more significant edge.
The precise motivation for this change in the diplomatic stance of major Western powers is a matter of debate. There is likely a genuine desire for de-escalation given that both countries are nuclear powers, and also a major war would be destructive to a fragile world economy. However layered into this is exasperation from countries that have increasingly experienced terrorism themselves. Hence UK Prime Minister Theresa May urging Imran Khan to end terrorist safe havens (assuming that he even has the power to do so), and France recently freezing the assets of Masood Azhar, the chief of the organisation that was bombed – Jaish e Mohammed.
The role of China in helping shield Azhar from international sanctions at the UN is telling. It highlights how Beijing, already under the international scanner for proliferation of nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan and North Korea could further damage its reputation by openly associating with terrorism. The concept of China as a state sponsor of terrorism is no longer beyond imagination in the international arena. Considering the geopolitical stresses which Beijing is now under, from a fast slowing economy to pressure from President Donald Trump’s aggressive trade war, the last thing it needs is to be seen as a major supporter of extremist groups. Yet bizarrely it has chosen to do just that. While China notoriously revels in being very opaque and inscrutable a number of possibilities exist as a rationale for China’s actions.
Firstly India has long been perceived as an economic rival and a threat by China, on account of differences between the two Asian powers over Tibet. There are also tensions over the Chinese desire for greater access to the Indian Ocean region, long seen as India’s backyard. It is plausible that China sees terrorism as a legitimate form of asymmetric warfare, effectively targeting India’s economy without having to risk overt military confrontation. Terrorism frightens off investment and tourism and disrupts Indian infrastructure. However this aggressive path by China is only likely to drive India closer to the informal group known as the ‘Quad’ (US, Japan and Australia being the other three), reinforcing the desire to accelerate their pan Asian co-operation. It will also likely increase India’s willingness to question the so-called ‘One China’ policy, that is emphasising the concept of Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang as highly autonomous if not separate entities to China. Neither trend is going to be good for Chinese interests.
Unlike the 1960’s and 1970’s, when a policy of Nehruvian non-alignment limited India’s options, Delhi’s response to Beijing is now likely to be robust. China is going to be seen as one of the main drivers of terrorism in Pakistan. India can choose to widen the imposition of tariffs on Chinese goods, hurting the Chinese economy. It can also ban Chinese companies such as Huawei from doing business in India. The cumulative impact of measures such as these is that the Chinese market access to India would be squeezed at a time when the Chinese economy is struggling with an overhang of bad and excessive investments in unnecessary infrastructure. It needs access to the fastest growing large market in the world which is now India. Being denied such market access would have substantial repercussions for the Chinese economy.
Beijing really needs Pakistan to effectively tie down India, preventing half of the Indian Army and Air Force from being deployed against China’s forces in Tibet. China has chosen, through its own belligerence to alienate most of its neighbours. Pakistan and rogue North Korea are all that it has as allies. It cannot afford to deploy all the most advanced military assets it has to check India because it needs to balance Japan, retain the ability to menace Taiwan, and simultaneously deter the United States. This puts it at a potential disadvantage should Delhi choose to become more assertive in Tibet. However, Pakistan helps keep India off balance, so that cannot happen. This means China will now need to expend actual and diplomatic capital keeping Pakistan afloat, which is a tough ask.
The impact on the Pakistani economy is also likely to be substantial. Pakistan charges thousands of dollars in overflight rights. So airlines pay Pakistan to use its airspace. By closing much of its airspace over the past month, ostensibly due to fear of more Indian air strikes, it is actually losing money to the order of tens of millions of dollars a week. This is in addition to the effective squeeze on bilateral trade by the Narendra Modi administration. Clearly India is using the threat of military escalation to induce economic paralysis in Pakistan, pushing that country closer to a major economic crisis. It may be forced to default as well as facing a major balance of payments crisis. It is also debateable whether Pakistan will be allowed by the United States to get an IMF bailout, in view of Washington’s frustrations over Pakistani failure to tackle domestic extremism. The recent military standoff also shows India is getting smarter. Rather than mobilising without striking (and bearing a big economic cost itself) , Delhi is using quick, short, sharp shocks to systemically undermine Pakistan’s economy while simultaneously weakening the other side’s deterrent.
This new gambit of escalation by Delhi has only just begun. It is the hallmark of a new hybrid warfare which showcases India’s ability to combine military might with savvy strategy, systemically bleeding Pakistan’s terror factories. If the terrorists are hit often enough and hard enough, they may well turn on the Pakistani state for failing to protect them. It remains to be seen whether Pakistan can carry the financial burden of paying the price for supporting terrorism, even with Chinese support. That is what the new Indian strategy is designed to ultimately test. It may be that the world will find out the answer to that question sooner rather than later.