New Delhi: Using phrases recycled from previous years, the US intelligence community’s annual threat assessment report said there continues to be a risk of armed confrontation along India’s borders with China and Pakistan.
The unclassified version of the 2023 Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community was squarely focused on China. Released on Thursday, March 9, the report says that China will continue to pursue a closer relationship with Russia to weaken US power and influence.
According to the New York Times, some aspects of the yearly public report “barely change year to year”, but the section on China had been expanded – “reflecting the intelligence agencies’ greater focus on the nation during the Biden administration”.
In the report, India is only mentioned in three contexts. In the first instance, it is noted that India and China have “critical roles in determining the trajectory of temperature rise”.
The rest is in the section on “potential inter-state conflicts”. On the India-China situation, the report says that while India has “resolved some of their border disputes through bilateral talks”, their relations “remain tense after a deadly clash in 2020”. This is a reference to the Galwan clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers, which left at least 24 soldiers dead, as per official records.
“Both countries have increased their military presence along the disputed border, which increases the risk of armed conflict. Previous incidents have shown that even minor disputes can quickly escalate. As nuclear powers, any conflict between India and China could have serious consequences for US interests, potentially requiring US intervention,” said the 2023 report.
The language used was almost identical to that of the previous year. “We assess that the expanded military postures by both India and China along the disputed border elevates the risk of armed confrontation between two nuclear powers that might involve direct threats to US persons and interests and calls for US intervention. Previous standoffs have demonstrated that persistent low-level friction on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has the potential to escalate swiftly,” the 2022 ATA report had said.
A year earlier, in 2021, the report did not go beyond a factual summary that tensions were high and multiple rounds of talks were held.
There was no report issued in 2020. But in 2019 and 2018, the annual report said that despite efforts on both sides to defuse tensions at the border after the Doklam stand-off, there was always a possibility of “unintentional escalation” due to “misperceptions” over military movements or construction.
Besides China, India features in all the threat assessment reports in terms of its relations with Pakistan.
Saying that crises between the two South Asian neighbours was of “particular concern” due to the risk of an escalatory cycle between two nuclear weapon states, the report added that both countries were also inclined to reinforce “current calm” in the relations after the renewal of the ceasefire along the Line of Control in early 2021.
“However, Pakistan has a long history of supporting anti-India militant groups, and under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is more likely than in the past to respond with military force to perceived or real Pakistani provocations. Each side’s perception of heightened tensions raises the risk of conflict, with violent unrest in Kashmir or a militant attack in India being potential flashpoints,” it said.
Again, there was little difference between the language used this year and that in 2022 and 2021. The reports had talked of an “escalatory cycle” and that the Indian government was “more likely than in the past to respond with military force to perceived or real Pakistani provocations”.
The 2019 report had a separate section that upcoming Indian elections could lead to communal clashes. “BJP policies during Modi’s first term have deepened communal tensions in some BJP-governed states, and Hindu nationalist state leaders might view a Hindu-nationalist campaign as a signal to incite low-level violence to animate their supporters. Increasing communal clashes could alienate Indian Muslims and allow Islamist terrorist groups in India to expand their influence,” said the US report dated January 2019.
It had also evaluated, ahead of the 2019 elections, that “political manoeuvring resulting from the Indian national elections probably will further constrain near-term opportunities for improving ties.”