January 12, 2022
NEW DELHI – An article was published on 29 December 2021 by the Brussels- headquartered International Crisis Group titled ‘10 conflicts to watch in 2022.’ The group has been releasing similar papers for the past few years. These are intended to act as a warning to global powers about regions where conflicts could cause lasting damage and thus deserve attention. The current paper lists Ukraine, US-China, Haiti, Yemen, Ethiopia, Iran-US-Israel, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Myanmar and Islamist militancy in Africa as major conflicts to observe. It has ignored the Indian subcontinent, including the ongoing Indo-China standoff as a potential area for conflict.
The International Crisis group, established in 1995, possesses a staff of over 100 experts, drawn from all walks of life, spread across most trouble spots including Africa, West Asia and central America. China is covered in its field reports while it only monitors India. Shiv Shankar Menon, a former Indian diplomat and national security advisor, is a trustee on the board of the group.
The Crisis group says on its website that “our work is urgently needed as the world is confronted with both new and chronic existing conflicts, each of which has devastating humanitarian, social and economic costs.” Basically, conflicts which impact non-combatants resulting in humanitarian crises remain their core concern.
The article also states that the possibility of a US-China conflict over Taiwan is unlikely in 2022. It talks of the “the Chinese and U.S. military’s increasing bump up against each another around the island and in the South China Sea, with all the peril of entanglement that entails.” Their assessment is that China would continue to bluff and threaten Taiwan but not cross global red lines. It also states that Vladimir Putin may gamble another incursion into Ukraine and a collapsed Iran-US nuclear deal could draw in Israel spreading the conflict into West Asia. There is no doubt that US-Iran talks are failing, and the West may not agree to the terms laid down by Putin for reducing tensions on Ukraine.
An added observation is that weakening US military power enhances global instability. While it has not made any mention about the Indian subcontinent, the world considers this region as a possible flashpoint. In December last year, the Pentagon displayed concern over increased Chinese build-up in the region. However, it remains confident that India would be able to contain Chinese misadventures. For years, the world considered an India-Pakistan conflict as a nuclear flashpoint. Pakistan’s first use nuclear policy, deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, continued support to terrorism and attempting to create an uprising in Kashmir have been assumed to be triggers for a nuclear war.
The only year when the subcontinent was mentioned as a possible region for conflict was over Kashmir in 2020. The Crisis Group paper of December 2019 cited the Pulwama attack, Balakote air strike and abrogation of article 370 as causes for enhanced tensions. The paper mentioned that a terrorist strike with large casualties could result in an Indian conventional offensive.
Tensions of 2019 continued through 2020, ending with declaration of a ceasefire in 2021. Despite the Indo-China standoff continuing from May 2020, there has been no mention of a possible Indo-China conflict. There are a few reasons as to why the Indian subcontinent including the current Indo-China standoff have receded as a flashpoint in global eyes. The first is that the standoff is running into its second year and the LAC has largely stabilized, though talks leading to disengagement at remaining friction points have not yielded any results.
However, the two sides remain in communication to prevent flare-ups. The level of forces on either side are sufficient to thwart misadventures. The second is that any escalation between the two nations would be localised with limited impact on non-combatants as the region remains remote and sparsely populated.
Thirdly, both nations are nuclear powers and possess the ability to destroy the other. India inducting its new AGNI series of missiles brings all major Chinese cities within its reach. This would act as a roadblock for any Chinese plans to expand the conflict. It leaves doors open for salami slicing small bits of territory, which would provoke an Indian retaliation, keeping the conflict localised.
Fourthly, China is aware that if it launches operations and fails to achieve its objectives, it could impact its global standing. Internally, China cannot sustain large casualties. The Indian occupation of the Kailash Ridge and determination to hold on to its position despite Chinese provocation, sent the right signals. Finally, the Quad and growing tensions between the US and China over Taiwan would impact Chinese decisions. India-Pakistan also not being considered a conflict zone is due to the current ceasefire holding, the volatile situation in Afghanistan as also Pakistan’s western borders and its failing economy. Pakistan lacks resources to sustain any major conflict. Its oil reserves are insufficient to support operations.
A further factor is that the Kashmir scenario is near normal and Pakistan’s backing of internal terrorism is failing with fewer takers. Pakistan is aware of Indian conventional military superiority and hence would avoid a showdown unless pushed. It would continue supporting terrorism and employing diplomacy to keep the Kashmir issue alive in global circles. However, it would keep terrorism below levels of Indian tolerance. Interestingly, the article correctly assessed that “states compete fiercely even when they are not fighting directly. They do battle with cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, election interference, economic coercion, and by instrumentalizing migrants.”
This is evident in the India-China and Indo-Pakistan scenario. With China a hybrid war and with Pakistan a global disinformation campaign backed by coordinated cyber-attacks are ongoing. The International Crisis group’s emphasis remains conflicts impacting civilian population as evident from its listing of Haiti, Yemen, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Africa. It tends to ignore standoffs as it believes that these may not lead to conflicts. It is with this backdrop that the Indian subcontinent has not been considered as a major global flashpoint in the current year, though for the region, levels of tensions remain high, and possibility of conflict remains perpetually high.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)