A deadly attack on Indian-controlled Kashmir by Pakistani terrorists could prompt New Delhi to respond with punitive action that could set off a full-blown crisis between the historical enemies.
More than 40 Indian security officers died on Thursday following a suicide attack in Pulwama, a district south of Srinagar under Indian control. Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, has claimed responsibility for the incident.
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has vowed to respond strongly to the brutality. "A befitting reply will be given to the perpetrators of the heinous attack and their patrons," the popular politician said on Twitter Friday. "No force will succeed in disturbing peace, progress and stability of India."
The incident drew a barrage of international criticism toward Islamabad for failing to sufficiently crack down on domestic terrorists and terror financing — a longstanding issue that's landed the South Asian nation on global financial blacklists. Jaish-e-Mohammad is banned in Pakistan but the group is still believed to operate in the country.
In a two-line statement, Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the country has "always condemned heightened acts of violence" in Kashmir and that it will "strongly reject any insinuation by elements in the Indian government and media circles that seek to link the attack to the State of Pakistan without investigations."
As Modi campaigns for re-election ahead of a national vote due by May, close attention is being paid to how he will respond to Thursday's attack in such a politically crucial year.
A military option wouldn't be out of the question for Modi, who in 2016 ordered surgical strikes on Pakistan-controlled Kashmir after an attack on an Indian army base in the Himalayan valley. Some Hindu nationalists, who make up the core constituency of Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, have also suggested diplomatic retaliation.
Subramanian Swamy, a firebrand BJP parliamentarian known for controversial views, said on Twitter that "India must break diplomatic relations with Pakistan." Swamy added that Kashmir "should be the only issue" in India's upcoming election.
Domestic pressure from his base could force Modi to retaliate but doing so risks aggravating Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's government. That could also trigger a new cycle of bilateral tensions, experts warn.
Kashmir is a sensitive issue for both countries, which have fought two wars over the mountainous area. In 2014, Pakistani and Indian forces exchanged fire there in border clashes that sparked mass panic.
"The current situation has all the making of an India-Pakistan crisis," Moeed Yusuf, associate vice president of the Asia Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace said in a note. "If [Modi] moves to threatening Pakistan, the tit-for-tat mudslinging will begin and temperatures on both sides would force an escalation."
"Any actions by India will escalate pressure on Pakistan to respond," echoed Mosharraf Zaidi, a former principal advisor to the Foreign Minister of Pakistan and currently a senior fellow at Islamabad-based think tank Tabadlab. "The escalatory ladder is steep and has potentially devastating consequences," he added.
It's hoped that Modi and Khan will engage in dialogue first but many are skeptical of that prospect.
"Their track record tells me though they won't — and if they do, they'll only use it to embarrass the other," said Yusuf, adding that he believed Modi will "use this attack to the hilt for domestic political gains."
"India's leaders must not use the attack as a political instrument and the Pakistani leadership must engage India to try to defuse tensions," said Zaidi.
The developments coincide with a series of high-level visits by Saudi and U.S. officials to South Asia. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is due to arrive in Pakistan Friday before later travelling to India. Khan's government is also due to receive U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and the Afghan Taliban next week for Afghan peace talks.
Beijing is one of Islamabad's closest allies and a major investor. The Asian giant recently agreed to provide Islamabad $2.5 billion in loans recently, a number that reportedly fell short of Islamabad's expectations.
"It will be interesting to see how China approaches this, given that it has blocked the designation of Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar as an international terrorist at the United Nations," said Dhruva Jaishankar, fellow in foreign policy at Brookings India. That could impact India-China relations as well, he added.
Some analysts are hoping for Washington's involvement if a India-Pakistan crisis were to arise but U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, which condemned Thursday's attack, isn't likely to play mediator anytime soon.
"Any involvement will likely put much more pressure on Pakistan to clean up its act," said Jaishankar, noting how Washington ended aid to Islamabad after criticizing the South Asian state for harboring terrorists.
Washington also enjoys a strong relationship with New Delhi, which is a major player in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy — America's foreign policy blueprint for Asia.