Special Briefing: India and Pakistan’s Latest Skirmish Is Also About the US and China

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Why you should care

This battle is rooted in history, but India and Pakistan aren’t the only ones who can shake it up.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

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Indian Muslims in Ahmedabad, India, shout anti-Pakistani slogans as they celebrate the Indian air force strike launched on a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Balakot, Pakistan, on Feb. 26, 2019. 

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What’s happening? Pakistan on Wednesday said it had captured an Indian pilot after shooting down two Indian air force jets, marking a sharp escalation in already taut relations between the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors in the wake of a Feb. 14 suicide car bombing in Kashmir that left 40 Indian troopers dead. Earlier in the morning, Pakistani air force jets dropped four bombs in Indian territory and shot down the Indian planes that chased them. The Pakistani bombings came a day after Indian fighter jets crossed over into Pakistani territory on Tuesday morning and bombed what New Delhi claims was “the biggest terrorist camp” of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, a U.N.-proscribed militant group that has claimed responsibility for the Kashmir terror attack. Pakistan claims the Indian bombs didn’t damage any property or kill anyone, while India says a “large number” of militants were killed. Both sides agree that Pakistan’s retaliatory bombings didn’t kill anyone. But the fate of the captured pilot could determine how far tensions escalate. The last time either side’s air force crossed the Line of Control — the de facto border between the nations in disputed Kashmir — was during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971.  

 

Why does it matter? Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan had warned after the Feb. 14 attack that if India launched a cross-border strike, “Pakistan will not just think about retaliation; Pakistan will retaliate.” Now, he’s acted on those words. But Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had just on Tuesday — after India’s bombings in Pakistan — publicly asserted that “the nation is in safe hands.” After Pakistan’s retaliatory attack, India on Wednesday shut down commercial services at key airports within 100 miles of the Pakistan border. With India heading to national elections, Modi will find it hard to avoid responding to Pakistan’s bombings. But any escalation could complicate an already tense geopolitical balance in South Asia, all while the U.S. tries to withdraw from Afghanistan and China builds the marquee project — an economic corridor connecting Xinjiang to the Arabian Sea — of its Belt and Road Initiative through Pakistan.    

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

A test for the U.S. … After Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament in December 2001, India and Pakistan lined up more than a million soldiers on either side of their border, seemingly in preparation for war. But after the U.S. — which needed Pakistan for its post-9/11 war on terror in Afghanistan — intervened, India eventually backed off. The U.S. has once again turned to Pakistan for help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, and President Donald Trump has said his team’s been in touch with both India and Pakistan to defuse tensions in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 attack. After Indian jets entered Pakistan on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with his Indian and Pakistani counterparts to calm the situation. Pakistan’s response just a few hours later shows that this time, America’s strategy isn’t working … yet. 

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Trump has said his team’s been in touch with both India and Pakistan to defuse tensions in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 attack.

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… and China. With a price tag of $62 billion, the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor is by far the largest project within the BRI, the grand network of highways, ports and railroads Beijing is building to connect Asia, Africa and Europe. The problem? The highway passes through Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, which India claims. New Delhi has protested against the project as a violation of its sovereignty, but Beijing hasn’t budged. As it is, critics have raised questions about the economic viability of the CPEC. Now, India has demonstrated the project is within the range of its fighter jets, and Pakistan’s air defense isn’t robust enough to stop them, raising Chinese fears of a strike on the highway in the name of blocking terrorist movements.

Shifting global winds. In some ways, though, the Indian strikes are an acknowledgment that its efforts at penalizing Pakistan through diplomacy haven’t worked. After the Feb. 14 attack, Indian officials said they would work with international partners to “isolate Pakistan.” But just this week, Trump’s top envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, publicly thanked Pakistan for facilitating the U.S.-Taliban talks that are the centerpiece of America’s efforts to find a respectable exit from the Afghan war. And China, Pakistan’s largest economic and strategic benefactor, has refused to criticize its friend. 

But Modi won’t mind. Irrespective of how the world responds to the cross-border bombings, Indian Prime Minister Modi stands politically strengthened today, ahead of the country’s national elections — the largest democratic exercise in history. Two weeks ago, his government was battling corruption allegations. Now, the national discourse in India is centered around tensions with Pakistan. If history is a guide, that’s good for Modi. National crises just ahead of elections have in the past helped incumbent governments return to power. In 1984, when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated, her Congress party won a record majority in parliament. In 1999 the Bharatiya Janata Party — Modi’s party — returned to power after a brief war with Pakistan. Is it Modi’s turn?       

WHAT TO READ

Jammu and Kashmir: Why Is India Bombing in Pakistan and Are They Going Back to War? by Sam Earle in Newsweek

“Tensions are never far from the surface in India-Pakistan relations, with Kashmir almost always at the center.”

Nuclear-Armed India and Pakistan Face Off in Renewed Escalation, by Iain Marlow and Kamran Haider on Bloomberg

“Facing a general election due by May, Modi is under substantial pressure after blaming Pakistan for the worst attack on security forces in Kashmir in several decades earlier this month.”

WHAT TO WATCH 

India Launches Air Strikes on Pakistan at Kashmir Border

“The strike comes amidst heightened tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors after a militant attack killed 40 Indian troops in the disputed Kashmir region.”

Watch on DW News on YouTube:

India’s Media: Drumming the Beats of War?

“The attack has provoked a national outpouring of grief on mainstream media channels and the spewing of lots of venom against various targets.”

Watch on Al Jazeera on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Fake news. Both Indian and Pakistani media have published footage claiming to be of the attack, viewed hundreds of thousands of times on social media. Other sources shared the same videos, claiming they were proof of a Pakistani counterstrike. In fact, all the footage was from a Pakistani air force demonstration five years ago.

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