'Most Dangerous Place In The World': Asia's Nuclear Standoff Is Much Bigger Than You Think

Two nations with nuclear weapons are locked in a tense stand-off, tensions escalating as jets are shot down and military assets mobilise.

India and Pakistan -- geographical neighbours, once-united but with a history of war and political skirmishes -- are eyeing off one another in the disputed Kashmir region that straddles the northern parts of both countries.

Fighter jets from both nations have reportedly been shot down, military personnel have been captured, others are dead, protesters are demonstrating and a simmering dispute over land seems to be on the brink of exploding.

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At the centre of all this is the fact both nations have nuclear capabilities, and fears that a military square-up could escalate beyond conventional weapons.

Indian army soldiers stand guard near the wreckage of an Indian military aircraft which crashed in Budgam, 20kms from Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo: Getty Images

So what's going on? And why is it blowing up now?

What happened between India and Pakistan?

Things have escalated relatively quickly, with the root of this current stand-off being a mid-February car bomb attack in Kashmir.

Nearly 50 Indian soldiers were killed and more were injured in the deadliest attack in the area in decades after a car packed with explosives was driven into a military convoy.

Security forces at the site of the explosion at Lethpora on the Jammu-Srinagar highway, on February 14, 2019 in Srinagar, India. Photo: Getty Images

India laid the blame for the attack at Pakistan, but the country denied involvement -- and an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, later claimed responsibility.

Indian jets entered Pakistani air space this week, to launch air strikes on a training camp for the group in the north of the country. It was said to be the first time Indian military had struck Pakistan since a war between the two countries in 1971.

An Indian Air Force fighter aircraft drops bombs during the 'Vayu Shakti 2019' firepower demonstration at the IAF's firing range field in the state of Rajasthan. Photo: Getty Images

India claimed hundreds were killed in the airstrike, but Pakistan denied this figure.

India's entry into their neighbour's airspace led to Pakistani fighter jets being deployed. Pakistan claimed it shot down two Indian planes and captured one pilot, while India claimed it had shot down a Pakistani plane.

The IAF 'Yayu Shakti' firepower demonstration at Pokharan, in the Rajasthan state on February 16, 2019. (Getty Images)

Pakistan state media showed a video on Wednesday, purportedly of an Indian pilot, blindfolded and bloodied, wearing an air force uniform.

Where does the Kashmir conflict come from?

Pakistan seceded from India in 1947, becoming a newly independent state -- Muslim majority areas of India became Pakistan, while the rest remained as India. The northern Kashmir region initially wanted to join neither new nation, pushing to remain independent, despite both Pakistan and India laying claim to the area.

Pakistani forces entered the region in 1947 in an attempt to claim Kashmir, a region it felt should come under its control due to its historical Muslim majority population.

Kashmir's local governor requested military assistance from India but was forced to agree to the region being absorbed into India before help was given.

(Graphic: Kenan Kaplan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

War broke out, before a controversial and contested 'line of control' was drawn through Kashmir, with Pakistan controlling the northern part -- known as Azad Kashmir -- and India the southern part, known as Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan maintains that it has claim over the entire region, and conflict has broken out between the two nations several times since, as each tries to assert its ownership of Kashmir.

In 2000, former president Bill Clinton called the area "the most dangerous place in the world".

So what happens now?

Both India and Pakistan claim to have shot down jets belonging to the other. India claims only one of its planes has been lost, despite Pakistan reporting it had shot down two, while Pakistan denies India has taken out any of its assets.

Several people, including pilots and civilians on the ground, were killed when an Indian jet crashed in Kashmir on Wednesday, while an Indian helicopter also crashed in the region.

Paramilitary personnel stand near the wreckage of an Indian Air Force helicopter after it crashed on February 27, 2019 in Budgam, India. Photo: Getty Images

India is set to hold a national election in May, the same month Australia will hold its own federal poll. Some pundits tip that a simmering conflict with Pakistan, as well as action on terrorist targets, may help the election chances of Prime Minister Narendra Modi -- a possible factor in how India, with a huge military and the second-highest population in the world, escalates the Pakistani conflict.

Pakistan also has political considerations, with new PM Imran Khan wanting to appear strong to his nation. The leader has already called a meeting of the National Command Authority (NCA), the body responsible for Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

Students of Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), a wing of religious political party Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), chant slogans during an anti-India protest rally, in Lahore on February 27, 2019. (ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)

"I said that we will surprise you. Wait for that surprise. I said that our response will be different. The response will come differently,” Pakistani Major General Asif Ghafoor said at a press conference this week.

“I hope you know what the NCA means and what it constitutes," he said, in a statement that alarmed some, who fear that the simmering conflict could potentially lead to nuclear weapons in a nightmare last-case scenario.

What about the nuclear possibilities?

While India has a "no first use" nuclear policy, meaning it has committed to only using nuclear weapons as retaliation in the case of an enemy deploying such methods first, Pakistan is thought to have no such stipulation.

Indian protesters burn pictures of Pakistani PM Imran Khan Photo: Getty Images

"To be clear, escalating tensions to the point of nuclear conflict would be catastrophic for both India and Pakistan and would destabilise the entire region—an option unlikely to be taken by either New Delhi or Islamabad," Saheli Roy Choudhury wrote for CNBC.

Both the European Union and United Nations Security Council have called for the conflict to be de-escalated, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the neighbours to "exercise restraint".

American President Donald Trump, not far away in Vietnam this week, is dealing with his own nuclear issues as he meets North Korean leader Kim Jong-un -- so it is yet to be seen how this will play out.

But with India and Pakistan engaging in their first serious military confrontation for decades, in a dispute over a historically controversial region, and both sides having nuclear weapons at their disposal, nobody is taking this situation lightly.