Review: India, Pakistan and Incremental CBMs

18 Feb, 2013    ·   3820

Debak Das reviews Toby Dalton's, "Beyond Incrementalism: Rethinking Approaches to CBMs and Stability in South Asia"

Debak Das
Debak Das
Research Officer

Beyond Incrementalism: Rethinking Approaches to CBMs and Stability in South Asia
Toby Dalton
Stimson Center, 30 January 2013

In light of the fresh round of overt and public exchanges of animosity between India and Pakistan in January 2013, the above essay is well timed. It is rich with analyses about various CBM processes between India and Pakistan over the years. Dalton suggests that there are two primary approaches to the way the process of CBMs have progressed in South Asia; they are, ‘incrementalism’ - currently the status quo in South Asia, and symbolic acts coupled with small steps - similar to the Lahore Summit (which was an exception to the otherwise risk averse incremental approach of both countries to CBMs). The author suggests a new approach that combines both these approaches in order to avoid the ‘pitfalls and discontinuity’ that have plagued past instances of CBMs.

Is Incrementalism Independent of Symbolic Acts?
The essay highlights the fact that incremental steps designed to build trust have, in truth, neither produced any stability, nor been a catalyst for change. It is suggested that the Lahore Summit that resulted in the Composite Dialogue process was the product of a remarkable degree of ‘initiative and risk-taking by two otherwise nationalist leaders.’ To Dalton, the one lesson from Lahore was that ‘faster incremental progress can be facilitated by sustained, high level political involvement reinforced by symbolic acts.’

An assumption in the essay seems to be that ‘incrementalism,’ independent of symbolic acts shall occur in slow and equal steps, which may spiral down to zero at any given point of crisis. This may not necessarily be true though. Should reciprocation be forthcoming from the other state, then greater and bolder initiatives (proportional to the level of reciprocation) can be undertaken. However, the challenge in the process is to create benchmarks, points in a linear scale beyond which relations may not be allowed to regress any further, regardless of the nature of the crisis at hand. The continuation of the exchange of lists of nuclear facilities in accordance to the agreement on the ‘Prohibition of Attack against Nuclear Installations and Facilities’ is a good example of a CBM that has withstood the test of acrimonious contingencies created by crises. Contrary to the author’s assessment, the exchange of these lists is not simply pro forma and devoid of strategic meaning in the context of the current nuclear dynamic between India and Pakistan. This CBM along with the pre-notification of missile testing are perhaps the best base agreements from which many more CBMs of the same genre may be generated. Tangibly these agreements may not necessarily offer a lot, but their very existence and persistence make for a strong symbol of the fact that security based CBMs need not be thrown off by eyeball to eyeball posturing along the Line of Control, or be stopped at the worst of other times. The challenge, though, lies in bringing in economic and political initiatives within the realm of these ‘secure CBMs.’

Stephen P. Cohen had correctly argued that while outsiders regard CBMs as no-risk, high-gain arrangements, in the India-Pakistan case, cooperation is seen as low-gain and high-risk. If cooperation fails, losses will be public, and politically damaging, so much so that a multiplier effect could see the region spiraling into conflict (Cohen, India, Pakistan and Kashmir, 2003). This is what weakens the case for the ‘symbolic approach.’ Theoretically, it seems to be a perfectly legitimate prognostication, but the problem lies in the status of the domestic political capital of both leaderships. Should the political capital be strong enough to withstand a potential domestic backlash, only then can such a ‘leap of trust’ take place. Strategic logic demands a positive payoff not only at the level of the international (reciprocation from the leader of the other state), but also at the domestic level (whereby at the very least the leaders’ domestic constituency is not threatened, if not advantaged). The prospects on the Pakistani side are made difficult given the role of hardliners and the military security establishment. No peace process in the subcontinent can go ahead without the blessing of the latter. However, given the raison d’être of the military establishment in Pakistan is defined by the country’s rivalry with India; it is difficult to see the aforementioned ‘blessing’ to be forthcoming. The Pakistan military’s economic imperatives pale in comparison to this, as do the arguments about populist Americanism. Both of these reasons are not convincing arguments for the military to be in favour of a dynamic and lasting peace process with India.

The author’s point about a basic need for a transformation of mutually hostile imagery borne by both parties is a very valid point. Nevertheless, the transformation of mutually hostile imagery is no mean feat and requires a concerted effort. However, the transformation of identities and collective perceptions of the other is a time consuming process and must have its beginnings at the grassroots level. Politicians making conciliatory statements, however radical, are not enough to contribute to the transformation of the ‘other.’ To this effect, a joint project of a collective South Asian history written by scholars from colleges and universities of both countries, which is then adopted in textbooks pertaining to the education systems of the respective countries may be a useful cultural/educational CBM. The aim would be to arrive at a neutral history that aims to eradicate the roots of acrimony produced by nationalistic misrepresentation.

The case for economic interdependence ameliorating the relations between India and Pakistan is a compelling one to be sure. The ‘win-win’ non-zero sum approach to trade that the essay considers is a liberal argument that has been made earlier too. The operationalisation of the granting of the MFN (non discriminatory) status to India by Pakistan shall definitely be a positive step in this direction. Nevertheless, trade is almost always the first to be hit in case of any rise in tensions between the two countries. The problem is that mutual bureaucratic suspicions deny either side from ‘raising the stakes’/making oneself more vulnerable to the other economically. The ‘enemy complex’ of always needing to possess the strategically higher ground is an obstacle that needs to be overcome if economic relations of any complexity are to be achieved.

The framework and agenda given by Dalton at the end of his essay speaks of a two pronged approach, where the bureaucracy shall pursue detailed and nuanced incremental steps; the political class shall be left with onus to lay the seeds of symbolic changes; goodwill shall be created through disaster relief mechanisms; and international parties, instead of being interested in improving security and political concerns between the two states shall instead bilaterally and multilaterally fund industries in both states to help create greater economic linkages. A component missing from the analysis, and something that needs to be addressed in the literature about CBMs between India and Pakistan today, is China. The possibilities of multilateral frameworks of security CBMs in the region must be explored given the state’s stake and influence in South Asia. It is an intervening variable that must be incorporated into any analysis regarding South Asian security and strategic stability.

Finally, any process of confidence building and trust building needs to have a framework and if not an explicit, at least an implicit understanding to what end the exercise is being undertaken. Merely conducting CBMs for the sake of conducting them is a counterproductive exercise. Even without a set of written clauses forming a framework, a set of directive guidelines may in fact give the process of CBMs more shape, direction and purpose, all of which have been hitherto lacking.

In essence though, getting over the ‘inherent bad faith model’ (as suggested by Ole Holsti), whereby a state presupposes that any unilateral act of conciliation or friendliness by the other is a ruse to bring about a false sense of security, thus leaving the trusting state vulnerable to harm’s way, is going to be the primary challenge to both India and Pakistan.