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India's decision last week to revoke a decades-old constitutional provision granting the Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir a degree of autonomy comes at a particularly fortuitous moment in global politics.
A resurgence of respect for national sovereignty and waning interest in multilateral solutions for territorial disputes work in India’s favor. Western powers are less prone to defend the democratic rights of regional minorities than they might have been following the Cold War. Moreover, a return of global big-power competition means that none of the heavyweights (the United States, China, and Russia) wants to do much of anything to alienate an emerging economic and security player in a critical geopolitical region.
For example, “the United States is basically saying, ‘Kashmir is an issue for India and Pakistan to figure out, but it is not something for us to get involved in,” says Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute. “India is gaining importance for the United States as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy and as one of the most important bulwarks against a rising China. ... It is not about to let an issue like Kashmir stand in the way of that priority.”
To India, its decision last week to revoke a decades-old constitutional provision granting the Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir a degree of autonomy is no one else’s business.
Indeed, sensitivity to even a whiff of international interference shone through in a jab at a rather bland response from the Chinese government. India “does not comment on the internal affairs of other countries,” the foreign ministry sniffed in a statement, “and similarly expects other countries to do likewise.”
Despite such protestations, it seems clear that India knew such a unilateral move on an issue that has stoked regional tensions for decades would not simply slip by as if New Delhi had just raised the domestic price of rice. The action in effect nullified a 1972 agreement with Pakistan that any revision of the disputed territory’s status would be decided bilaterally between the two nuclear-armed archrivals.
The reality is that India made its move to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy – something the country’s Hindu nationalists have demanded since shortly after independence in 1947 – at a particularly fortuitous moment in global politics.
A resurgence of respect for national sovereignty and waning interest in multilateral solutions for territorial disputes work in India’s favor. Western powers are less prone to defend the democratic rights of regional minorities than they might have been following the Cold War. At the same time, international sympathies for autonomy movements are nowhere near as robust as they once were – especially if they harbor any element of terrorist ideology.
Moreover, a return of big-power competition to the world stage means that none of the heavyweights (the United States, China, and Russia), not to mention lesser powers, wants to do much of anything to alienate an emerging economic and security player in a critical geopolitical region.
The muted American response to the move is a case in point.
President Donald Trump caught India off guard when he chose a Washington visit last month by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to offer to mediate the Kashmir conflict. He said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently asked him to consider playing such a role – a claim Indian officials quickly denied.
But now, “The United States is basically saying, ‘Kashmir is an issue for India and Pakistan to figure out, but it is not something for us to get involved in,” says Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow focusing on South Asia at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington.
“What that tells me is that India is gaining importance for the United States as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy and as one of the most important bulwarks against a rising China,” he adds. “It is not about to let an issue like Kashmir stand in the way of that priority.”
And then there’s China.
In another era, India’s giant neighbor might have come down harder against unilateral action in a region where it, too, has a territorial dispute with India. And initially Beijing did issue statements supportive of Pakistan’s “legitimate rights and interests” in Kashmir, to the satisfaction of Pakistani officials.
But China has its own issues with restive territories – look no further than the recent turmoil in Hong Kong – and is not inclined to condemn another country’s action to deal with such trouble spots, some regional analysts say.
“The all-weather friend of Pakistan – by which of course I mean China – might have been expected to come out more forcefully on this, but to use an expression from cricket, it also finds itself on the back foot,” says Waheguru Pal Sidhu, a clinical associate professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and an expert in the role of India and other emerging powers in an evolving global order.
“China has the issue of Xinjiang [region], and even Hong Kong, so for it to become the champion against this kind of action by another country – its credibility would be incredibly low to say the least,” says Dr. Sidhu.
Xinjiang is home to 10 million Muslim Uyghurs and, though to a lesser degree than Kashmir, harbors resistance to central-government efforts to fully integrate the province politically and culturally into the nation. Some 1 million residents of Xinjiang are believed to have been detained in guarded reeducation centers, though China claims most have been released.
Pakistan’s initial aim was to press for what experts describe as an “internationalization” of the Kashmir issue, first by having it taken up in the United Nations Security Council. Lack of enthusiasm among council members initially made that step seem unlikely, but by Thursday a closed-door consultation on the issue was set for Friday morning. It would be the first council discussion of Kashmir in decades.
Dr. Sidhu notes that Russia, one of the Security Council’s five permanent members, has come out in support of India’s move in Kashmir – “payback,” he says, for India’s quiet response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Even major Muslim countries have indicated either outright support for India’s action on Muslim-majority Kashmir, or have shown they do not intend to let it stand in the way of their relations with New Delhi.
Mr. Dhume of AEI points to Monday’s announcement by Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco of a $15 billion investment in one of India’s largest companies.
“Saudi Arabia has traditionally been close to Pakistan, but over the past several decades India and Pakistan have diverged economically to where India’s economy is now about eight times larger than Pakistan’s,” he says. “The Saudis can’t ignore that” for the sake of Kashmir.
New Delhi has experience braving international opposition, with some regional analysts noting that India weathered decades of harsh reaction to its nuclear program and nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the muted responses to Kashmir can’t help but elicit a sigh of relief from India’s government, Mr. Dhume says.
“Round One of the diplomatic maneuvering on this has clearly gone India’s way,” he says.
While that may be true, some say the real test of international tolerance will come over the coming months, as India shifts from the current lockdown to implementing Kashmir’s new status and relationship with the central government. One key element to watch: how India handles Kashmir’s transition as the anticipated U.S. withdrawal from nearby Afghanistan plays out.
While most experts concur that India’s decision to act now on Kashmir reflects domestic politics, such as Hindu nationalists’ victory in May elections, some believe advancing U.S. talks with the Taliban over U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan precipitated India’s action.
Pakistan could move to activate its proxies in Kashmir (and in Afghanistan) to disrupt any political transition in the territory, Dr. Sidhu says, but that would likely only reduce whatever sympathies India’s rival has mustered over Kashmir, and “provide India justification for a much more muscular crackdown.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include new reports that the Security Council plans to discuss Kashmir.