Manmohan and Asif Do Lunch

The Singh-Zardari luncheon was more productive than many expected.  But the bonhomie will eventually run into stark political realities.

Although the timing was coincidental and neither man professes the Christian faith, it was appropriately symbolic that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari broke bread in New Delhi on Easter Sunday.  After all, both are responsible for the resurrection of bilateral affairs from the deep chill that followed the 2008 terrorist strikes in Mumbai.  As a New York Times editorial today notes, “both deserve credit for their sensible, workmanlike effort over the past year to improve relations between the two nuclear rivals.”

Their luncheon, billed as an informal get-together but which had all the trappings of a mini-summit, was the first trip to India by a Pakistani head of state in seven years.  It not only gave further momentum to the peace dialogue the two countries launched a year ago, which has already resulted in growing trade links.  But it also imparted new optimism that the talks could move on to such contentious matters like the perennially-inflamed dispute over the Kashmir region.

The annals of India-Pakistan relations are filled with numerous false dawns and the current moves could well founder upon the sharp historical animosities that regularly bedevil bilateral affairs.  But things may be different this time.  Reports out ofIslamabad indicate that the Pakistani government realizes the country is in desperate economic straits and that closer ties with its ever-richer sibling constitute a much needed lifeline.  The military establishment is also said to understand that the eastern border needs to be stabilized so resources can be focused on combating rising internal security threats.  Significantly, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the powerful army chief who is deeply suspicious of Indian intentions, met with Zardari just before his departure to New Delhi, seemingly giving his blessing to the journey.

Up until this point, the warming in bilateral relations has occurred on the economic engagement front.  The two sides have pledged to more than double their two-way trade flows – to the $6 billion annual level – by 2015.  They agreed to ease visa rules for business travel and tomorrow will open a new customs facility at the Attari-Wagah border crossing that lies midway between Lahore and Amritsar which will be able to handle about 1,000 trucks a day, up from the present 25.  Islamabad has also extended “most favored nation” trade status to New Delhi, reciprocating the status India conferred upon Pakistan years ago.  This last development promises to enliven the 2006 South Asia Free Trade Agreement which up until this point has been all but a dead letter.

The Indian and Pakistani central banks have announced plans to open branch offices in the other country, a move that will help facilitate cross-border transactions.  Both countries have also advanced initiatives to enhance energy cooperation, including joint development of a natural gas field inTurkmenistan.  And expert talks on expanding commerce in the electrical power and petroleum sectors have taken place in recent weeks.

If enhanced trade ties were to develop between South Asia’s largest economies, they would produce significant commercial and (eventually) security dividends for both countries.  According to various studies, a more liberalized trade regime would increase bilateral exchange at least 20 times above current figures as well as boost general prosperity in both countries.  A new report by the Confederation of Indian Industries argues that cross-border trade could easily quadruple in just a few years if both governments moved to increase economic linkages.

In his session with Prime Minister Singh, President Zardari agreed to an Indian proposal that the two countries pattern their ties along the lines of the India-China relationship, which combines broadening economic integration, frequent interactions between the national leaderships, and pragmatic diplomacy focused on incremental gains.

The so-called “Chinese model” has so far proven its utility.  In an interview yesterday with the Wall Street Journal, Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai stated that the politically-difficult decision to open Pakistani markets to Indian goods has convinced New Delhi that Islamabad is serious about better relations.  “I wouldn’t have been as optimistic six months ago,” he commented.  “The fact the government is able to move on the trade track shows there’s a greater willingness to take things forward by all the players.”

Mathai also announced that India is now ready to reopen discussions on Kashmir, picking up where the intensive back-channel peace process both sides undertook in 2004-07 left off.  Although those negotiations ultimately collapsed due to Pervez Musharraf’s political travails, they may have come tantalizing close to defusing the volatile Kashmir issue.

Officials in both New Delhi and Islamabad also have put the word out that other long-running territorial contestations might be ripe for discussion, too, including the one over Sir Creek, a patch of marshland dividing the Indian state of Gujarat and the Pakistani province of Sindh.

The de-militarization of the Siachen Glacier, an uninhabitable stretch of the Himalayas that is filled more with political symbolism than strategic value, also might be on the agenda.  Although a ceasefire there has been in effect since 2003, the rigors of fierce climate and rugged terrain still exact a heavy toll on each side’s military.  On the eve of Zardari’s trip, an avalanche wiped out the base camp of a Pakistani army battalion, claiming the lives of some 135 soldiers and civilians.  Since the beginning of the year, avalanches have likewise taken the lives of some 20 Indian army and border security personnel.  The financial costs of maintaining garrisons in such an inhospitable environment also runs into the tens of millions of dollars for both countries.

These issues are likely to be given greater treatment when Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna visits Islamabad in June or July, followed by a possible visit by Mr. Singh toward the end of the year.

But it is unlikely the bonhomie flowing from the Singh-Zardari luncheon will be enough to significantly advance the discussion on these sensitive questions.  Both governments are weak and lack the political capital to make fundamental breakthroughs on issues that have defied solution for decades.  (On this, see Myra MacDonald’s analysis of the prospects for a quick accord on Siachen.)  Battered by allegations of scandal and ineptitude, Singh’s government is seemingly consigned to lame duck status as it waits for its term to expire in two years.  In Islamabad, the government is within sight of its own electoral contest and in any case Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani might soon find himself in jail on contempt of court charges.  Moreover, General Kayani, unlike his predecessor Musharraf, is reportedly much less ready to make peace with India.

A larger, if a bit more distant, danger resides in the sharper security competition that is sure to erupt between the countries as the United States and its NATO allies hasten their departure from Afghanistan.  Both India and Pakistan regard the country as a key theater of their strategic rivalry and the current defrosting in relations will likely become a casualty as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates into a new civil war that has regional powers scrambling for influence.

Still, the present stirrings of peace demonstrate that despite its singularity intensity the India-Pakistan rivalry has always been a fluid admixture of cooperative impulses and competitive dynamics.  Both governments would be wise to do what they now can to accentuate the workings of the Chinese model before strategic distrust returns to the fore.

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4 thoughts on “Manmohan and Asif Do Lunch

  1. Pingback: Rather Unexpectedly, India’s Near Abroad is Looking Up | Chanakya's Notebook

  2. Pingback: Rather Unexpectedly, India’s Near Abroad is Looking Up | Foreign Policy Blogs

  3. Pingback: Rather Unexpectedly, India’s Neighborhood is Looking Up | US India Relationship Blog

  4. Pingback: Pakistan: The White Strip Abrades | Chanakya's Notebook

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