Editor’s Note: The following is an adapted excerpt from USIP’s Senior Study Group Final Report, “Enhancing Strategic Stability in Southern Asia.” The report reviews the challenges posed by changing strategic circumstances in Southern Asia, assesses a range of U.S. policy options and presents a set of priority recommendations for U.S. policymakers.

Over the past decade, long-standing disputes between the nuclear-armed states of Southern Asia have repeatedly veered into deeper hostility and violence. These regional developments reflect and reinforce new and significant geopolitical shifts, starting with the global strategic competition between China and the United States. In Southern Asia, relations between the United States and Pakistan have frayed even as U.S.-India and China-Pakistan ties have strengthened. The region now faces deepening and more multifaceted polarization. Global competition adds fuel to regional conflict and reduces options for crisis mediation.

Pakistani, foreground, and Indian border guards mimc each other's movements during their daily ceremonial face off, at the Wagah-Attari border crossing, Sept. 28, 2019. (Mustafa Hussain/The New York Times)
Pakistani, foreground, and Indian border guards mimc each other's movements during their daily ceremonial face off, at the Wagah-Attari border crossing, Sept. 28, 2019. (Mustafa Hussain/The New York Times)

To help keep the peace in Southern Asia, the United States should undertake efforts in three domains: core regional disputes, strategic regional stability and potential crises involving nuclear-armed actors in the region.

Core Disputes

Consistent with long-standing U.S. policy, Washington should encourage diplomacy between the governments of India and Pakistan to resolve their bilateral disputes nonviolently. In addition, recognizing that regional circumstances have changed, especially in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and that the February 2021 cease-fire holds, if tenuously, the United States should also seek senior-level discussions with New Delhi to consider prospects for new India-Pakistan diplomatic initiatives. This would include encouraging diplomatically, and when possible supporting with technical assistance or advice, even minor opportunities to reduce India-Pakistan tensions. Examples include demilitarizing the Siachen Glacier, reenforcing water sharing agreements, and enhancing channels for communication between India and Pakistan, even if core bilateral disputes continue to prove intractable. Washington should also pursue bilateral consultations with New Delhi on India’s border dispute with China to discuss strategies for returning to nonviolent management of differences without territorial concessions.

U.S. diplomats should clarify to Beijing that the primary consequence of its provocative actions in disputed territories is stronger U.S-India strategic cooperation. In U.S. negotiations with the Taliban-led regime in Afghanistan, Washington should explicitly name anti-Indian terrorist organizations among the groups of serious, if not topmost, concern to the United States. This would be a first step to gauging prospects for cooperation with the Taliban in limiting Afghanistan’s role as a base for anti-Indian training and operations. Relatedly, as Washington attempts to build over-the-horizon counterterror capabilities inside Afghanistan, it should consider anti-Indian terrorist organizations as high priority targets, just below terrorists with global or chemical, radiological, biological and nuclear ambitions.

The United States should develop, in partnership with the widest possible coalition of allies and partners (starting with Quad members Australia, India and Japan), new economic and financial tools intended to deter Chinese territorial aggression against India and elsewhere, along with coordinated implementation strategies. That coordinated effort should begin by identifying a range of economic and financial measures (including targeted market or supply cutoffs) and by anticipating likely Chinese policy responses to minimize the potential costs of retaliation. 

The United States should also increase economic and financial costs to Pakistan for continuing or expanding support to anti-Indian and other terrorist organizations, including by working with allies and partners to maintain the conditions-based financial instrument of the Financial Action Task Force. Other policy tools merit serious consideration as well, such as closing market access or denying visas to Pakistani officials to Europe and the United States. 

Washington should support regional economic development projects through the World Bank and other partners specifically intended to improve interstate commerce, especially between India and Pakistan, and to build material incentives and more vocal constituencies favoring peace. Last, Washington should support creative track 1.5 and track 2.0 initiatives to promote interaction, new ideas and dissemination of previous lessons among current and future policymakers in the United States and Southern Asia.

Strategic Stability

To enhance prospects for strategic stability in Southern Asia, Washington should devote renewed attention to nuclear risk reduction measures in the region. Specifically, it should offer U.S. diplomatic, technical and analytical support to improve the region’s capacity for nuclear information-sharing and communication in future crises. This would start with establishing a dedicated, secure and redundant India-Pakistan nuclear hotline with supporting bilateral agreements and practices, followed by the establishment of Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers that would facilitate information collection and sharing as they have in the U.S.-Russia context.

The United States should also encourage India and Pakistan to consider unilateral or bilateral steps, such as renouncing specific technologies like nuclear depth charges and adding cruise missiles to the 2005 missile test pre-notification agreement. Such moves would both help reduce the use of especially destabilizing technologies and build confidence for more significant arms control discussions. 

Washington should urge New Delhi to open a bilateral strategic stability dialogue with Beijing, backed by quiet U.S.-India information-sharing about Chinese nuclear developments to support Indian dialogue participants. Equally, US diplomats should urge China, perhaps in the context of proposed US-China strategic stability talks, both to be a voice for restraint in Pakistan and to pursue a bilateral strategic stability dialogue with India as a tangible demonstration of responsible leadership. 

The United States should discuss with partners and allies the concept of a new transregional forum on regional and global strategic stability that would convene an N-7 group (China, France, India, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) in discussions to increase mutual understanding, strengthen stabilizing nuclear norms (such as new declaratory policies and practices intended to distinguish nuclear from conventional weapons and thereby address the discrimination challenge), and over time encourage restraint.

Washington should raise the N-7 concept with Beijing in the context of bilateral dialogues, appealing to Beijing’s desire to play a greater role in international leadership and citing the need for China to assume greater responsibility on issues of global peace and security. U.S. policymakers should lay the groundwork for their official diplomatic initiatives by providing support to track-2 N-7 discussions to encourage participation by other member states, seek workarounds to likely objections and obstacles, and identify topics and ideas that could eventually be fed into official channels.

Relatedly, the United States should deepen defense cooperation with India in ways that contribute to India’s capacity for territorial defense and a stabilizing conventional and nuclear deterrent. At the same time, Washington should be careful to avoid exacerbating the regional arms race or increasing the likelihood of nuclear crises. Accordingly, U.S. efforts should prioritize defense cooperation and sales in areas that contribute to the resilience of India’s civilian and military communications infrastructure in future crises, such as cyberattacks, and otherwise enhance prospects for crisis stability.

When U.S.-India defense cooperation and sales are not possible, and especially in areas that have been central to India-Russia defense cooperation, Washington should encourage New Delhi to consider purchases from U.S. allies and partners, such as France and Israel, as smart and reliable alternatives. It should pair these defense initiatives with an enhanced strategic stability dialogue with New Delhi, specifically to discuss ways in which newly acquired systems could be deployed to enhance rather than diminish prospects for regional peace and security.

Last, the United States should restart a regular dialogue with Pakistan on strategic stability. Washington should also conduct a systematic review of lessons learned from past U.S. initiatives to help Pakistan improve the security and safety of its nuclear assets, then should consider whether related lessons could be applied to future cooperative activities with India or Pakistan.

Crises Between Nuclear-Armed States

To better manage crises between nuclear-armed regional states, the United States should take concrete steps to prepare its policymakers for complex nuclear crisis diplomacy in Southern Asia. U.S. preparations should include conducting gaming exercises within the intelligence community; developing a generalized policy playbook for India-China, India-Pakistan, and overlapping India-China-Pakistan crises; and routinely sharing insights from these planning documents with all incoming senior officials in relevant U.S. government agencies, embassies, and bases.

Although any new crisis will be unique, Washington should use these briefing sessions to consider policy challenges that run through many crisis scenarios in Southern Asia, such as the need to balance two potentially competing U.S. aims: supporting India as a strategic partner and simultaneously avoiding actions that could inadvertently escalate crises with nuclear-armed adversaries in China or Pakistan. The United States should also consider whether and how public messaging, including sharing U.S. information, should be used to debunk disinformation propagated by regional actors to prevent crises and avoid escalation.

Other measures Washington should undertake to manage crises include improving U.S. indicators and warning for regional crises and preparing capabilities for sharing information publicly and with regional actors. In addition, the United States should improve its technical channels for real-time intelligence sharing with India, especially related to indications and warning of increased threats posed by China along the China-India border and at sea. Relatedly, the United States should offer technical assistance to India to enhance the resilience of its information and communications systems in a regional crisis. Washington should also establish, maintain, and test routinely multiple secure and reliable channels for information-sharing with China, Pakistan, and Russia, even if official bilateral relations with or among these countries continue to deteriorate.

U.S. preparation for crisis diplomacy should include working with trusted third parties, such as the United Arab Emirates, to serve as intermediaries and honest brokers in future crises. Part of such preparation would be to preestablish points of contact and secure communication protocols to avoid confusion in crisis. Similarly, the United States should work with close allies such as France and the United Kingdom to prepare a menu of diplomatic initiatives intended to introduce delays and offer off ramps from possible nuclear escalation.

Read the full report here.

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