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South Asian leaders understand nuclear war risks: US report

WASHINGTON: The leaders of China, India and Pakistan understand the risks and costs of an armed conflict between nuclear nations but growing nationalism in the region could ignite a war, warns a new US report.

The US Institute of Peace, a federal institution with a mandate from Congress, made this observation in the final report of a study by its senior scholars released this week.

The report reviews the challenges posed by changing strategic circumstances in Southern Asia, assesses a range of US policy options, and presents a set of priority recommendations for US policymakers.

It urges the United States to devote renewed attention to nuclear risk reduction measures, starting with the establishment of a “dedicated and secure India-Pakistan nuclear hotline, supported by bilateral agreements and practices”.

Policymakers in Washington should urge both India and China to “enter strategic stability talks with each other” and they should also “raise the idea of a new transregional forum on regional and global strategic stability that would include the so-called Nuclear-7 (N-7), China, France, India, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

This forum should discuss and strengthen stabilising nuclear norms, says the report while urging Washington to deepen its defence cooperation with New Delhi “in ways that contribute to India’s capacity for territorial defence”.

The report envisages that stronger defence ties between the US and India could be a “stabilizing conventional and nuclear deterrent without exacerbating the regional arms race or increasing the likelihood of nuclear crises.”

The USIP also urges the Biden administration to use “its ongoing negotiations with the Taliban and economic and financial leverage with Pakistan” to reduce threats to regional stability posed by terrorists based in Afghanistan and Pakistan. To further stress this point, the report suggests naming anti-Indian terrorists as “priority US concerns and targets.”

Stressing the need to strengthen national borders, the report argues: “Deterrence logic dictates that Beijing, Islamabad, and New Delhi perceive enormous costs to looking weak along their borders.”

The fear of encouraging adventurism or bullying by neighbours “makes nations more likely to escalate disputes in ways that risk turning minor skirmishes into major standoffs,” the report adds.

It points out that the 2019 terrorist attack in occupied Kashmir sparked retaliatory Indian air strikes into Pakistan, followed by Pakistani reprisals into India.

Similarly, deadly hand-to-hand combat between Indian and Chinese border patrols in 2020 prompted both sides to send tanks and artillery into close contact on high mountain plateaus.

“Accidents, like the March 2022 misfire of an Indian hypersonic cruise missile into Pakistani territory, inject unpredictability into the mix,” the report warns.

To better manage crises between the nuclear-armed states of Southern Asia, the report urges the United States to prepare its policymakers for complex nuclear crisis diplomacy in the region by conducting gaming exercises within the intelligence community.

It also suggests developing a generalised policy playbook for India-Pakistan, India-China, and overlapping India-Pakistan-China crises. Another suggestion is to routinely share insights from these planning documents with all incoming senior officials.

The report urges Washington to improve its indicators and warning for regional crises and prepare to share information publicly and with regional actors to combat disinformation in instances where doing so could prevent or de-escalate a conflict.

The report urges Washington to help New Delhi enhance the resilience of its information and communications channels.

It notes that China, India, and Pakistan have developed nuclear capabilities as one way to deter conflict with more powerful adversaries: the United States, China, and India, respectively.

“All aspire to field nuclear triads with assured second-strike capabilities,” the report adds.

This has led to a “cascading security dilemma, encourages arms racing, disrupts regional strategic stability, and heightens the risk that crises could cross the nuclear threshold,” the report warns.

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