June 12, 2015 / 8:34 AM / 2 years ago

Brief raid by India in far-off Myanmar has Pakistan fuming

NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The Indian army’s brief foray this week into Myanmar to hunt militants set alarm bells ringing in far-away Pakistan, Delhi’s arch-rival whom it blames for stoking a rebellion in the disputed region of Kashmir.

By suggesting the Myanmar incident could set a precedent for more cross-border raids, including into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, a junior Indian minister took the row one step further.

Bellicose language is nothing new between the nuclear-armed neighbors, but Pakistanis say recent events have further hurt relations already strained since India’s nationalist leader Narendra Modi came to power.

And as long as the talk is of threats and retaliation, hopes of finding a way out of decades of war and suspicion look slim.

It is also not without its risks.

“Very bad news often follows when adversaries give up on improved relations,” Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center in Washington, wrote in a blogpost on the Arms Control Wonk.

“We’re at this juncture now on the Subcontinent,” added Krepon, an authority on nuclear security in South Asia.

“Absent top-down initiatives to mend fences, initiatives that New Delhi appears unwilling to take and that Pakistan’s civilian government is handcuffed from taking, the stage will be set for another nuclear-tinged crisis in the region.”

FAR-OFF MYANMAR

One trigger for this week’s bitter verbal exchanges was India’s action thousands of kilometers east of Pakistan.

Hours after 70 Indian special forces crossed into Myanmar from two northeastern states and killed an unspecified number of rebels, junior minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore said it was a message to Pakistan that India will go after militants anywhere.

That was a thinly veiled reference to Muslim-majority Kashmir, where India blames Pakistan for fomenting a militant rebellion in the part of the Himalayan region held by Delhi.

Pakistan, in turn, has accused India of stoking trouble in Baluchistan, a province torn by militant and separatist violence which is key to the country’s economic prospects.

Pakistan shared evidence of Indian meddling in Baluchistan with the United States in February this year, a senior official with knowledge of Pakistan’s policy toward India told Reuters.

Tuesday’s rare cross-border raid into Myanmar bolsters the Modi government’s claims of a robust response to security threats from Pakistan, though that is a more complex challenge; the sides have fought three wars since partition in 1947.

As an immediate consequence, Indian and Pakistani troops strung out along the bitterly contested de facto Kashmir border are likely to raise alert levels to discourage cross border incursions, Indian military officials said.

On Thursday the two armies exchanged gunfire in the Poonch sector of Kashmir, the Indian army said, blaming Pakistani troops for starting the fighting. The Pakistan military was not immediately available for comment.

As well as a more hawkish leader, India’s top security team is led by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, a former intelligence operative who has suggested India may look to retaliate if Pakistan interferes in Kashmir or elsewhere.

In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made peace with India a top campaign promise in 2013 elections, but those ambitions have been dashed as the influential military tightens its grip on power and Modi keeps the door shut.

REGIONAL PLAY

The tensions go far beyond Kashmir.

India risks losing a foothold in Afghanistan, now that President Ashraf Ghani has reached out to Pakistan to help him pursue peace with Taliban militants. Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, was far more friendly towards India.

Meanwhile, Modi has wooed Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka by offering credit lines and a share in India’s fast-growing economy, while giving Pakistan the cold shoulder.

“Every now and then Pakistan keeps disturbing India, creates nuisance, promotes terrorism and such incidents keep recurring,” he said during a visit to Bangladesh last weekend, remarks that drew a sharp retort from Islamabad.

Pakistan believes Modi is seeking to isolate it, and seeks to counter that strategy by inviting China into the region, a development that causes major concern to New Delhi.

China’s tightening embrace of Pakistan could give it a bridgehead into South Asia and the Indian Ocean, reinforcing India’s worst fears of a conflict on two fronts.

Chinese President Xi Jinping launched plans for a $46 billion economic corridor during a recent visit to Pakistan. The route will provide a road running from China to a deepwater Pakistani port, vastly expanding the reach of the Chinese navy.

According to Indian officials, Modi told Xi during his visit to China last month that a corridor through Kashmir was “unacceptable.”

Even a relatively modest proposal by Pakistan cricket authorities to play against the Indian team in a neutral venue like Dubai was met by stony silence from the Indian government.

Additional reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Editing by Mike Collett-White

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