India-Pakistan Rapprochement: How Long Will It Last?

The cross-border bonhomie is likely to reach its limit as 2013 unfolds

Last week’s signing of a landmark visa agreement making cross-border travel easier between India and Pakistan, especially for business people, is the latest sign of how economic engagement is driving the peace dialogue the two countries launched last year.  It follows last month’s decision by New Delhi to permit foreign direct investment from Pakistan, and steps by both governments to allow banks from one country to set up shop in the other (see here and here).  Islamabad also has committed to granting “most favored nation” trade status to India by the end of the year.

Other positive signposts include the brief but productive mini-summit between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari earlier this year in New Delhi – the first visit to India by a Pakistani head of state in seven years.  And retired senior military leaders from both countries have engaged in an informal but promising dialogue about important confidence-building measures.

Given Afghanistan’s grim prospects and Pakistan’s harrowing domestic instabilities, the unexpected détente between New Delhi and Islamabad is one of the few bright spots on South Asia’s security map.  Fresh optimism fills the air that the sibling states which were literally born at each other’s throats just might this time be able to establish a more normal and cooperative relationship.  Speculation abounds, too, about the possibility of Mr. Singh undertaking a historic trip to Pakistan in the coming months – which if it occurs would be the first such journey by an Indian leader in nearly nine years.

There is increasing talk that the two governments should use the present diplomatic momentum to tackle long-running territorial contestations, including the disputes over the Siachen Glacier, an uninhabitable stretch of the Himalayas whose occupation by the Indian army has claimed the lives of nearly 850 Indian soldiers over the past three decades, as well as Sir Creek, a patch of marshland dividing the Indian state of Gujarat and the Pakistani province of Sindh.  Both countries were reportedly close to striking deals on Siachen in the early 1990s and then again in 2005, and two former Indian army generals (here and here) have recently advocated for a de-militarization accord.  And in Mr. Singh’s estimation, an agreement on Sir Creek is “doable.”

Hope is even arising that the countries can make progress on what are the holy grails of the bilateral relationship: resolution of the perennially-inflamed dispute over the Kashmir region and establishing a regional common market along the lines of the European Union.

The détente process has progressed much further and more rapidly than one could have reasonably thought possible even as recently as last summer.  A number of factors are at work here.  The first is the persistence of the two national leaders; as the New York Times recently noted, Singh and Zardari “both deserve credit for their sensible, workmanlike effort over the past year to improve relations between the two nuclear rivals.”  Indeed, Singh’s dogged pursuit of good relations with Pakistan has seemingly come in face of resistance from his own Cabinet.

Second, for all of the internecine squabbling in Islamabad, Pakistan’s main parties at least agree on the value of improved economic cooperation with India.  Zardari was once accused of being soft on India by the Pakistan Muslim League-N, the main opposition party.  But with its base composed of Punjabi industrialists now yearning for entry into their neighbor’s markets, the PML has shifted ground.  An editorial in The News International, the largest English-language newspaper in Pakistan, summed up the new thinking: “Today, India is more opportunity than threat, and we can both be the richer as a result.”

Third, and of great consequence, is a similar change within the military leadership.  General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the powerful army chief who earlier maintained a hard line vis-à-vis New Delhi, recently spoke of the need for “peaceful co-existence” with India and stated that his country “can’t keep spending on defense alone and forget about the development.”  Reports out of Islamabad indicate the military establishment realizes that the eastern border needs to be stabilized so resources can be focused on combating rising internal security threats.

But how long can the current stirrings of peace continue?  After all, optimism has also been a commodity with a short shelf-life in South Asian security affairs, and the annals of India-Pakistan relations are filled with numerous false dawns.  Indeed, the last two efforts at rapprochement serve as cautionary tales.  The intensive back-channel peace process both sides undertook in 2004-07 may have come tantalizing close to defusing the Kashmir issue.  But they were ultimately derailed first by Pervez Musharraf’s political travails and then by the deep pall casted by the November 2008 terrorist assault in Mumbai.  Before that, the promising initiatives reached at the February 1999 summit in Lahore between the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers gave hope of a new era in bilateral affairs.  But they quickly perished with the outbreak of the Kargil mini-war three months later.

There are strong reasons to believe a similar fate awaits the current détente process.  Start with the mismatch in expectations between New Delhi and Islamabad.  As Myra MacDonald notes, India, as the status quo power in the bilateral equation, “sees improved trade ties as a useful end in themselves; Pakistan, in contrast, is looking for rapid progress on territorial disputes.”  As anticipation builds for real movement on core security issues, New Delhi’s traditional stinginess on territorial concessions is likely to undermine the peace constituency in Islamabad while bolstering hardliners like Difa-e-Pakistan.  On this score, Mr. Singh’s Cabinet colleagues have reportedly blocked his more generous approach on Siachen.

Next, consider the sharper security competition bound 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.  This is all the more so given that Washington has now ended its long deference to Pakistani anxieties and is encouraging New Delhi to raise its profile in Afghanistan.  A new report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies is full of ideas about India-Pakistani cooperation on the Afghan war yet also concedes that their prospects should be considered with a degree of skepticism.

Lastly, think about the political turbulence that will unfold inside Pakistan over the coming year. The tumult will begin with what are sure to be chaotic parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for March 2013, and continue on with a trifecta of significant leadership transitions at year’s end:

  • President Zardari’s current, though renewable, term will expire in September.  His reappointment will turn greatly on the parliamentary poll’s outcome.  If his Pakistan People’s Party fares poorly in the spring, Islamabad will be consumed for the next six months by high-stakes politicking to select his successor.
  • General Kayani’s tenure will expire in November.  His original three-year term as army chief was extended in 2010 – an unprecedented act by a civilian government.  Given the fraught nature of civilian-military relations, the decision on whether to renew his tenure once again or appoint a new chief will require much political energy.
  • Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the Supreme Court’s maverick chief justice, is slated for mandatory retirement in ­­­­­December.  In view of his personal vendetta against Zardari, the selection of a successor is bound to stir up commotion if Zardari continues on as president.

As one analyst observes, “It is hard to imagine that all three of these antagonists will go quietly into the night.”  The resulting upheaval will inevitably detract leadership attention away from bilateral affairs.

The remarkable developments over the last two years demonstrate that despite its singular intensity the India-Pakistan rivalry has always been a fluid admixture of cooperative impulses and competitive dynamics.   Yet the spurt of cross-border bonhomie is likely to reach its limit as 2013 unfolds.

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