At the Shangri-La Dialogue meeting of defence ministers in Singapore last month, Indian Defence Minister Pallam Raju was asked whether India could exercise similar self-restraint should another terrorist attack occur such as the one in Mumbai in November 2008.
Then, Islamic terrorists carried out 10 co-ordinated attacks over four days, killing 164 civilians. Not flinching from a direct question, Pallam Raju replied that "if a provocation were to happen again, it would be hard to justify to our people self-restraint".
In light of the three blasts that occurred within minutes of each other in Mumbai last week, killing at least 20 civilians, India-Pakistan relations will inevitably deteriorate if there is evidence Pakistani security forces or intelligence agencies were involved.
As a backgrounder, there is much evidence that the 2008 attacks were carried out with support of some officials within Pakistan's shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. Ajmal Kasab, the only terrorist captured alive, subsequently admitted he was a member of Lashkar-e-Toiba, a Pakistan-based militant group. Indian intelligence probes confirm the terrorists trained in Pakistan and the controllers who instructed the terrorists during the 2008 attacks were based in Pakistan. Yet despite Pakistan's go-slow during investigations--initially refusing to admit the role Pakistan nationals played in executing the attacks, Islamabad's refusal to hand over seven LET members accused of having a role in the attacks and promising to allow Indian investigators to enter Pakistan as late as April this year--India, with US urging, has largely pursued a restrained diplomatic route in resolving these difficulties with Pakistan.
Indian Prime Minister Mamohan Singh's decision to exercise considerable self-restraint after the November 2008 attacks was admirable. Facing a population wanting payback, few democratic leaders would have done the same. It is clear that one reason why New Delhi chose to avoid an escalation of tension and enmity with Pakistan is geo-strategic.
As Indian strategists openly admit, China and not Pakistan is the great geo-strategic concern for New Delhi. While both are nuclear-armed states with serious disputes such as control of Kashmir, the rivalry with Islamabad has become an annoyance rather than a threat for New Delhi. After all, India is a rising power with a population and economy about 10 times bigger than its neighbour.
In contrast, the government in Islamabad is ruling over what is arguably already a failed state. In such a state, the Pakistani armed forces enjoy a dominant role in the economy--with estimates that the wealth earned by military-owned businesses amounts to about 10 per cent of GDP. The military is perhaps the only competently organised, prestigious and formidable institution in the country. While this provides some kind of stability to the country, it also means that there is little incentive for the armed forces to encourage the emergence of genuine power and independent civilian democratic institutions.
Because the Pakistani military's raison d'etre is its rivalry with India, any escalation of tension only strengthens the role of the Pakistani armed forces and the resources at their disposal. In other words, the Pakistani military-state has a vested interest in the continuation and deepening of tensions with New Delhi.
In contrast, any permanent de-escalation of Indo-Pakistani tensions will weaken the role of the military establishment in Pakistan, which is what India would like to achieve in the longer term.
Then there is the complication of the intensifying geo-strategic rivalry between India and China. Islamabad counts Beijing as one of its true allies. It does so because China has offered considerable military, economic and diplomatic aid to Pakistan.
Significantly, China offers just enough strategic and military (including nuclear and ballistic missile) aid to Pakistan to keep India distracted in south Asia (but not enough to become a focal point in the existing India-Pakistan problem). China also backs Maoists in Nepal and sells arms to Burma, Sri Lanka and Nepal in a bid to foment contained instability around India's borders and dilute Indian influence in these states.
Escalation of tension between India and Pakistan furthers China's interests. The more India remains a distracted and preoccupied south Asian power with headaches to its northwest, north and northeast, the less likely it is to emerge as an Indian Ocean and east Asian power capable of becoming a natural counterweight to growing Chinese influence--which is what New Delhi and Washington are hoping for.