This spring, as the snows melt in the high Himalayan borderlands between India, China, and Pakistan, the longstanding threat of crisis, or even war, looms. We, the co-chairs of a new study group report from the United States Institute of Peace, find that too few in U.S. national security and foreign policy making circles appreciate just how dangerous this region has become, how regional dynamics have changed over the past several years, and what more Washington should do in response.
This is the world’s only region where three nuclear-armed states share contested and frequently violent borders, and where two nuclear powers — India and Pakistan — have launched airstrikes on each other’s territories. All three powers are investing heavily in their armed forces, deepening their border defenses, and expanding their nuclear arsenals and delivery systems. Although we hope these investments will enhance deterrence and encourage restraint, we judge the opposite to be more likely.
Fortunately, quite unlike Vladimir Putin, the leaders of China, India, and Pakistan all appear to appreciate the risks and costs of war. None is hell-bent on territorial conquest, at least not yet. That said, nationalism is a potent force across the region, and one that these states are likely to find easier to stoke than to restrain.
Deterrence logic also dictates that Beijing, Islamabad, and New Delhi perceive enormous costs to looking weak along their borders. The fear of encouraging adventurism or bullying by neighbors makes nations more likely to escalate disputes in ways that risk turning minor skirmishes into major standoffs. In 2019, terrorist attacks in India claimed by a Pakistan-based outfit sparked retaliatory air strikes into Pakistan, followed by Pakistani reprisals into India. In 2020, deadly hand-to-hand combat between Indian and Chinese border patrols prompted both sides to send tanks and artillery into close contact on high mountain plateaus. Those heavy forces no longer face off within eyesight of each other, but they remain deployed near the border at a high state of readiness and could accelerate the escalation of the next China-India flare up. Accidents, like the March 2022 misfire of an Indian hypersonic cruise missile into Pakistani territory, inject unpredictability into the mix.
The United States’ interests in the region are also changing. Like its recent predecessors, the Biden administration views India as an essential strategic partner in a sharpening geopolitical competition with China. Washington may have no direct stake in the specific resolution of the China-India border dispute, but it does have a clear and stated interest in India’s security and in deterring Chinese territorial aggression.
That said, when New Delhi reacts to attacks inside India supported by Pakistan-based terrorists or to cross-border aggression by Beijing, U.S. support to India should be structured to reduce the risk of crisis escalation and set a foundation for greater stability rather than a faster regional arms race.
As China draws closer to Pakistan, India must take seriously the prospect of a two-front crisis, whether because Beijing and Islamabad coordinate their moves, because one opportunistically seizes the advantage of India’s distracted focus, or out of sheer coincidence. Paradoxically, by drawing closer to India the United States accentuates Pakistani perceptions of U.S. abandonment and heightens China’s alarm over what Beijing perceives to be a burgeoning counter-China alliance, driving Beijing and Islamabad even closer.
To play a constructive role in the midst of such complicated regional relationships and at times countervailing U.S. aims, U.S. policymakers should start working to better anticipate and respond to potential nuclear crises in South Asia. The intelligence community should be asked to conduct routine gaming exercises; the administration should develop a generalized policy playbook for India-Pakistan, China-India, and overlapping China-India-Pakistan crises; and insights from these planning documents should be shared incoming senior officials in relevant US government agencies, embassies, and combatant commands.
Washington should also work to improve information sharing capabilities and real-time crisis communication networks with and among all three nuclear states in Southern Asia. U.S. intelligence and policy officials should prepare to share information with regional actors — and publicly, if necessary — to combat disinformation in instances where doing so could prevent or deescalate a conflict. They should continue and expand efforts to help New Delhi enhance the resilience of its information and communications channels to cyber and other threats and build on intelligence sharing initiatives with India. U.S. diplomats should also coordinate with trusted third parties, like the U.K., France, and the UAE, so that they might serve as intermediaries and honest brokers in future crises.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Moscow’s not-so-veiled nuclear threats are a timely reminder that the nuclear taboo cannot be taken for granted. Even as that war grinds on, Washington should not lose sight of its frightening implications for Southern Asia, or underestimate how an escalation of the region’s simmering territorial conflicts between heavily armed nuclear states could rapidly move from a spark to a devastating conflagration.