Conflict Dynamics in South Asia

Sub Title : Historical burden and inter-state rivalry continues to cause armed conflicts and unrest in the region

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2023

Author : Col Ashwani Sharma (Retd)

Page No. : 23

Category : Geostrategy

: August 2, 2023

The conflicts in South Asia have deep and intertwined roots, influenced by historical legacies, external interventions, globalization, and domestic dynamics. Resolving these conflicts requires a comprehensive understanding of their complexities and a willingness to address the underlying issues and interests of all parties involved.

South Asia has emerged as a significant focal point in conflict studies as the region has been a witness to five full-scale inter-state conflicts, involving nuclear-armed adversaries and some of Asia’s major powers. Additionally, certain states in South Asia have unfortunately become hubs for global terrorism, and insurgencies and separatist movements have plagued the area with no country remaining untouched.  Conflicts in the subcontinent have deep historical roots, dating back to the colonial and pre-colonial periods. However, in recent times, certain problems have exacerbated these old rivalries. The region is also susceptible to extremism and heightened emotions in these conflicts, fuelled by nationalism and strong religious loyalties, creating a dangerous mix. The memory of past humiliations, atrocities, and rivalries has intensified the feelings of the main regional players, India and Pakistan. Many of the conflicts in South Asia have emerged from issues that arose after the partition in 1947. These regional conflicts, revolving around sensitive topics like nationalism and foreign interference, have also narrowed our perspective and influenced the course of South Asian politics.

In this essay we delve into the various types of conflicts present in South Asia and explore their root causes and far-reaching consequences. By doing so, we aim to contribute to a better understanding of the complex dynamics at play in this crucial region.

Causes and types of Conflicts

Conflicts in South Asia, as well as other regions around the world, can be broadly categorized into four main types:

Historical causes. Conflicts inherited and strategically induced in inter-state engagements, where tensions and disputes between countries, particularly India and Pakistan, play a significant role.

Global Dynamics. Conflicts imposed and escalated by global political, strategic, and developmental dynamics, including the influence of major powers. This category encompasses conflicts triggered by external forces and factors. For example, conflicts arising from the United States’ post-9/11 intervention in Afghanistan to combat terrorism, or the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan during the 1979-80 period, which was fuelled by the exigencies of the Cold War. The Chinese war on India in 1962 also falls under this category. The Cold War had a profound impact on South Asia, deepening regional divides and complicating internal and inter-state conflicts. Global developmental and ideological issues have indirectly contributed to South Asian conflicts, with processes like globalization having both positive and negative consequences, adding to the region’s challenges.

Internal turbulence. Conflicts precipitated and nurtured by internal political turbulence, socio-cultural fault-lines, and developmental distortions. This category encompasses various insurgencies and ethnic/sectarian conflicts within South Asian countries.

Non state Actors. Conflicts caused and perpetrated by non-state actors, such as terrorist groups like the 2008 Mumbai attacks in India or insurgent and criminal activities across South Asian borders.

The listed categories of conflicts in South Asia do not follow any specific chronological or hierarchical order. Globally, and with good reason, there is a prevailing assumption that inter-state conflicts have been increasingly giving way to conflicts within states. This trend is also evident in South Asia, although it is essential to recognize that the boundaries of conflicts in the region, as well as elsewhere, should be viewed as porous and flexible. These conflicts can manifest in both armed and violent forms, as well as non-violent forms, including diplomatic tensions, strong disagreements, and peaceful protests. Often, armed and unarmed conflicts can feed into and transform each other.

The conflicts in South Asia have deep roots, stemming from the region’s colonial legacies and turbulent nation- and state-building processes after gaining independence. The colonial legacies left behind three significant conflict potential factors: (i) the creation of unnatural and absurd state systems, (ii) unresolved state boundaries, and (iii) the undefined status of various ethnic, religious, and social groups. The end of colonial rule was marked by struggles for freedom in multiple forms, particularly India’s successful freedom movement, which also led to the decolonisation of other South Asian countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka. However, the partition of India resulted in the creation of a problematic state of Pakistan, which  later resulted in a split with the emergence of Bangladesh as a separate sovereign nation after the 1971 Indo – Pak war.

External influences have played a substantial role in generating conflicts in South Asia. The more-than-a-decade-long “war on global terrorism” directly affected Afghanistan and Pakistan, and indirectly affected India, as a result of the US intervention in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Similarly, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, driven by the Cold War dynamics, involved Pakistan in the conflict as well. The Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 was also influenced by the Cold War and great-power rivalries as much as it was the result of mutual mistrust, poor diplomacy and a festering unresolved border dispute.

The ideological and developmental aspects of globalization have also contributed to conflicts in South Asian societies. Globalization has triggered explosions of information, identity, and aspirations, and the political systems have struggled to cope with these changes, leading to governance and leadership deficits. The unequal distribution of the benefits of development and widening social gaps have intensified conflicts in the region.

Non-violent inter-state conflicts in South Asia may arise from territorial disputes, disagreements over access to or sharing of regional resources like water, energy, and fisheries, as well as disputes related to trade, transit, investments, and migration across borders. Addressing these various conflict types requires a comprehensive understanding of the underlying causes and effective management strategies to promote stability and cooperation in the region. In recent years, the focus has shifted towards the fourth category of conflicts, which involves the activities of non-state actors. This attention has been heightened, especially following the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on the United States and the subsequent rise of terrorist groups that operate transnationally, either with or without support from established states.

Some of the most entrenched and prolonged internal conflicts in South Asia, such as the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, have been resolved in unexpected ways. The military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the Sri Lankan military in 2009 and the peaceful, democratic transformation of the Nepal Maoists when they joined hands with mainstream political parties in 2006 were not anticipated by many. However, it is important to note that ending a conflict does not necessarily mean that its root causes have been fully addressed and eradicated. For instance, in Sri Lanka, even after the war’s end, there is still a pending need for political resolution to the ethnic issue. In Nepal, while the Maoists integrated into the mainstream of national politics and the monarchy was removed to establish a republican political order, the promise of building a New Nepal remains unfulfilled and needs to be institutionalized.

The domestic conflicts in South Asia are rooted in the unfinished processes of state- and nation-building. Unsettled social equations and political hierarchies have fuelled ethnic and sectarian conflicts. Issues related to national identity and ownership have created divisions among diverse social groups. Additionally, unequal distribution of development benefits and growing disparities between aspirations and achievements have contributed to internal conflicts in the region.

South Asia’s open and contiguous borders have facilitated the spill-over of internal conflicts from one country to another, leading to bilateral and regional conflicts. Countries in the region have at times exploited their neighbours’ internal conflicts for strategic or foreign policy interests. However, some conflicts have been resolved through policy shifts and cooperation between affected states.

China’s Expanding Influence in South Asia

Since the early 21st century, China’s relations with South Asia have rapidly deepened and expanded as part of its global ambitions. Under General Secretary Xi Jinping’s leadership, China’s engagement in the region, especially through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has accelerated. China’s growing presence in South Asia presents both opportunities and challenges for the region. As Beijing’s influence expands, South Asia becomes an arena for geopolitical competition, impacting various states’ domestic and international policies. Policymakers in the region and beyond must carefully navigate these dynamics to ensure regional stability and development.

The geopolitical dynamics involving the United States, China, and South Asia are complex. South Asia is strategically important for both the U.S. and China due to its geographic location, large population, and risks related to nuclear weaponry and terrorism. This region is critical to the U.S.’s goal of fostering an open Indo-Pacific and China’s aspiration of becoming the leading Asian power. Their rivalry, however, complicates cooperation efforts in South Asia, even on mutual interests such as counterterrorism and crisis management between India and Pakistan.

Chinese investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is boosting the China-Pakistan alliance while contributing to governance issues and exacerbating debt problems in Pakistan. As an all-weather and time tested friend of Pakistan, China’s stance on India-Pakistan disputes leans openly towards Pakistan to limit Indian power in Asia, while the U.S.  engages in a tight rope walk and of late mostly supports India. This partiality keeps the situation tense, benefiting Beijing’s objectives of dividing India’s resources and fostering fear of a two-front war. Pakistan benefits from China’s backing and development financing.

The Sino-Indian border remains a major flash point, with no resolution in sight for their border disputes. Incidents such as the 2020 border crisis have strained the relationship and will impact China’s opportunities in India for years to come. Efforts to manage border patrol operations can help lessen tensions, but territorial issues and “gray zone” provocations from China are significant hurdles.


Conflicts in South Asia have also brought about changes in political regimes and systems. The defeat of Pakistan in the 1971 India-Pakistan conflict led to the emergence of a popularly elected civilian regime. In Nepal, the Maoist insurgency led to the abolition of monarchy and the establishment of a republican democratic order. Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict influenced the adoption of the presidential system. However, conflicts have also led to violence and assassinations of prominent leaders, causing widespread suffering and brutalization of societies.

Economically, conflicts have had varying impacts, with some areas remaining relatively unaffected, while others suffer from poor growth under conflict’s influence. Conflicts have also hindered regional cooperation; conflicts have made South Asian states vulnerable to external interventions and influences, both positive and negative. The consequences have been damaging, affecting security, stability, political order, economic growth, and social harmony in the region. There is a need for the people of South Asia to learn from these conflicts and work towards their resolution for the sake of their own security and well-being.

Successfully managing and resolving these internal conflicts in South Asian countries depend on two critical aspects: institutionalizing democratic functioning and ensuring sustainable economic growth with distributive justice. These aspects have been challenging in most South Asian countries. For example, Nepal and Maldives have struggled to institutionalize democracy, and Pakistan’s governing institutions face tensions.

In conclusion

The prospects for South Asia’s conflicts remain complex and challenging. The region has a history of inherent conflicts, and many of the root causes of these conflicts persist despite efforts to implement confidence-building measures. The unresolved Kashmir question continues to create tension between India and Pakistan, and Pakistan’s internal identity crisis and dominance of the army in politics fuel cross-border terrorism. While outright inter-state conflicts in South Asia seem unlikely, internal conflicts within the countries are likely to persist.