The events of the last fortnight will continue to be talked about and debated for decades to come. It will be remembered as the fortnight in which the world came very close to facing a nuclear crisis again. And not, as many would have expected, between the US and North Korea. India and Pakistan engaged in cross-border air strikes in response to a terrorist attack in Pulwama in Kashmir carried out by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist outfit. For two days, the threat of nuclear war loomed as a real possibility. At the time of writing, although an Indian air force pilot is in Pakistan’s custody, it seems that the situation is starting to de-escalate but it remains extremely serious. One thing’s clear, however: Pakistan has achieved what it wanted to- it has successfully brought Kashmir to the world’s attention once again.
Also, at the time of writing, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are in Hanoi for their second summit this week. There is little expectation that the summit will result in any serious breakthroughs vis-à-vis North Korean denuclearisation although it remains to be seen whether either side will offer any concessions and what the nature of the concessions would be.
Early morning on 26 February, the Indian air force conducted air strikes targeting JeM camps in Pakistan and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. The raids were said to destroy the terrorist training camp at Balakot in the Pakistani province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and a couple of other targets. The Indian foreign secretary, in a press statement, emphasised that the strikes comprised ‘non-military’ action against non-state actors and weren’t targeted towards the Pakistani civilian population or military installations. The statement further included details of an intercepted plan by Jaish terrorists to carry out more attacks on Indian soil. India’s airstrikes were thus pre-emptive in that respect and were an act of self-defence and not an act of war, legally speaking. Pakistan carried out retaliatory airstrikes in Indian territory, shot down two MiG 21s, and arrested an Indian air-force pilot. As news reports of these strikes started streaming in, there was a brief period in which it was reported that Indian air-space north of Delhi had been closed and a few airports near the western border shut down. Pakistani airspace continues to remain closed, as I write this. The press statement issued by the Indian external affairs ministry, however, was a clear attempt to de-escalate tensions by New Delhi; it didn’t include any inflammatory rhetoric and was crafted to portray victory to the Indian public. The Pakistani prime minister also gave a televised address and appealed for ‘better sense to prevail’; he pointed out that Pakistan had proved that it could and would retaliate to Indian military provocations befittingly but it didn’t aim to escalate the matter.
Notably, India had been\quick to shore up diplomatic support after its airstrikes and briefed diplomats from several nations about it, making it clear that India’s actions were ‘non-military’ in nature. As a result, all countries, including China, and the United Nations, refrained from condemning India, and instead called on Pakistan to stop providing safe havens to terrorists and urged both countries to exercise restraint. Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, too, was able to get Moscow and Beijing to issue a statement condemning terrorism, at their trilateral meeting in Wuzhen in China.
Days after the Pulwama terrorist attack, the UN Security Council issued a statement condemning the attack and calling Pakistan out to stop supporting terror outfits such as the JeM. It was reported that China tried to prevent Pakistan and JeM being named in the statement; their inclusion was seen as a victory for Indian diplomacy. US national security advisor John Bolton is reported to have called up his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval and reassured the Indian government of the US’s support in its fight against terrorism and its ‘right to self-defence’. Pakistan was also given another warning by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) against its financing of terrorists; Islamabad continues to be grey-listed and has a very real chance of being black-listed in the FATF’s next session in May.
Closer to home, the Australian prime minister made a shocking announcement in parliament that the computer systems of three major political parties had been hacked by a ‘sophisticated’ state-backed hacker. Speculations are rife that China was behind the attacks, and if proven true, could mark a further deterioration in Sino-Australian ties, which have been under stress in the past couple of years. Speaking of China, the Chinese port of Dalian has banned the import of Australian coal citing reasons to support domestic coal production. Despite trade minister Simon Birmingham’s attempts b to play down the significance of the issue, it has reverberated in the Australian media and commentariat with rumours that the coal ban is part of Beijing’s strategy to punish Australia for protesting against United Front-led activities in the country, excluding Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from its 5G network and more recently, preventing a Hong Kong-based company from taking control of a major gas distribution network.
Ending months of speculation, former foreign minister and veteran politician Julie Bishop announced her retirement from politics at the next election. Prime minister Morrison paid a tribute to her career and legacy in the parliament.
Significance for Australia
The last fortnight has marked a watershed in regional security dynamics and is significant for three factors: one, India has demonstrated a willingness to use air power to carry out precision strikes against terrorists across the border; two, it’s been established that there remains some room for manoeuvrability for conventional warfare tactics below the nuclear threshold; and three, this was the first time that two nuclear powers came close to a war-like situation in the age of social media and real-time, 24×7 news cycle. India’s airstrikes were a marked departure from its policy of strategic patience, as it demonstrated in the wake of the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Plus, it was the first time since the 1971 war, that India conducted raids across the international border; note, it refrained from doing so during the Kargil war in 1999.
Australian foreign minister Marise Payne released a statement that could be seen as extending a tacit note of understanding towards the Indian position; Australia called on Pakistan to put a stop to all terrorist activity within its borders, without a word of condemnation for India. France too, noted the ‘legitimacy’ of India’s response to terrorism. Nonetheless, Australia and the global community, were keen to ensure a peaceful de-escalation of the crisis as war between nuclear powers portends an extremely dangerous scenario.
At the time of writing, the outcome of the Trump-Kim summit is unclear. But Australia would be hoping for, if not a favourable result, at least not a catastrophic one that would include Trump giving away too many concessions in return for too little from North Korea.
Lastly, Australia would be worried about the hacking of the computer systems of the major political parties. Some analysts have argued that China is the most likely suspect and should be called out for it; however, any confirmation can only take place after an enquiry. Nonetheless, it foreshadows the fact that our political system and democratic institutions are vulnerable to attacks by foreign entities and need to be protected.