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Explaining the evolution of contestation in South Asia


India’s claims for regional hegemony have regularly been contested since its independence in 1947. The self-proclaimed emerging power is locked in an enduring rivalry with the South Asian secondary power, Pakistan. This article outlines the evolution of Pakistan’s contestation since independence and seeks to demonstrate how, when and why Pakistan adapted its foreign policy toward India. While the goals of Pakistan’s contestation remained constant, its means varied at two points in post-independence history. From 1947 to 1971, territorial disputes combined with a nascent nationalism drove the secondary power’s foreign policy elite to engage in war and open resistance, and the divergent domestic political ideologies of both countries complicated conflict resolution. With Pakistan’s devastating war defeat in 1971, direct means of contestation were no longer an immediate option, and a period of reluctant acquiescence ensued. The alleged involvement of Pakistani intelligence proxies in a crisis in Jammu and Kashmir in 1987 marked the beginning of a renewed phase of resistance, though now through indirect means of nuclear coercion and subconventional warfare. This form of contestation has increasingly manifested itself in bilateral crises with high potential of escalation and primarily targeted symbols of India’s South Asian hegemony, including its political and commercial centres in Delhi and Mumbai in 2001 and 2008 respectively or India’s diplomatic representations in Afghanistan. The article concludes that the current conditions of regional contestation in South Asia, most importantly the persistent revisionist versus status-quo domestic agendas, the presence of growing nuclear arsenals, and multi-tiered Asian rivalry constellations, undermine prospects for conflict resolution and complicate modelling future strategic behaviour in the region.

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Figure 1


  1. 1.

    For a more detailed discussion on regional hegemony and the role and strategy of secondary and tertiary states, see Williams et al (2012).

  2. 2.

    Following partition, the newly independent state of Pakistan had a Western and Eastern wing separated by 1600 kilometres of Indian territory. East Pakistan became the independent state of Bangladesh in 1971.

  3. 3.

    While the military embargo was still in vigor, the United States provided Pakistan with military provisions through Jordan, Turkey and Iran. For a detailed account of the illegal weapons transfer, see Bass (2013, pp. 291–302).

  4. 4.

    Its total military expenditure in 1985 was US$8921 million against Pakistan’s US$2957 million (see International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1999).

  5. 5.

    The impression that the United States was not a reliable military and political ally in times of crisis, the loss of East Pakistan and the Indian nuclear test of 1974 convinced Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto of the need to acquire a nuclear deterrent (see Khan, 2012).

  6. 6.

    The ISI is the premier Intelligence service of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, operationally responsible for ensuring national security and providing intelligence assessments to the Government of Pakistan.

  7. 7.

    This article will not delve into the empirical details of the different South Asian security crises of the last 20 years, but will instead focus on their theoretical implications for the study of Pakistan’s strategic behavior. For more detailed accounts of these standoffs, see Chari et al (2007); Ganguly and Hagerty (2005); Narang (2010).

  8. 8.

    The following part builds on Blarel and Ebert (2013).

  9. 9.

    A high-profile nuclear deal in June 2010, for example, arguably followed the goal of establishing a counterweight to the Indo-US agreement and, similar to past nuclear material and technology transfers, to further balancing India (see Joshi, 2011; Paul, 2003).

  10. 10.

    For a discussion of the concept of ‘pivotal deterrence’, see Crawford (2003).

  11. 11.

    Quoted in Khan (2012, p. 87).


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Correspondence to Hannes Ebert.

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Blarel, N., Ebert, H. Explaining the evolution of contestation in South Asia. Int Polit 52, 223–238 (2015).

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  • secondary powers
  • rising powers
  • politics of contestation
  • asymmetric conflict
  • nuclear deterrence
  • India-Pakistan relations