What next vis-a-vis China and Pakistan

23 May, 2013    ·   3944

D Suba Chandran assesses India's diplomatic options in terms of its future strategy toward the two neighbours

The elections are over in Pakistan, and the political scenario in terms of the next government is clear. Nawaz Sharif is the new Prime Minister, and he has adequate support in the Parliament and is not heading an unstable coalition. The Prime Minister of the other big neighbour - China, with whom there was a tension along the borders during the last two months, also visited New Delhi few days earlier.

For India, China and Pakistan are extremely important neighbours. No doubt, every neighbour in the region is important for India, however, China and Pakistan are special neighbours. Both countries are not only nuclear weapon powers, with whom India has fought wars and has unresolved border disputes, but also important from a domestic perspective. No other countries in the region is so much debated within India; equally important, the Indian polity and multiple ministries are not so deeply divided with other countries, as they are vis-a-vis China and Pakistan.

The Chinese Prime Minister came to New Delhi, fully prepared to face the questions on what happened in Ladakh in terms of the Chinese troops intruding deep into the Indian territory. Though he deliberately underplayed the incident, he did not attempt to scuttle the issue. More importantly, he did not try to be jingoistic over the issue. It appears, he was well briefed for the questions, and certainly came well prepared. Not only on the border question, but he came well prepared and briefed on the question of water sharing between the two countries.

It clearly appears, China is more keen to expand the economic ties with India, and down play the border conflict. It also appears the Indian polity is also equally divided in terms of what should be the primary focus during the Chinese Prime Minister visit. While a section within India, especially led by the Defence ministry and Home ministry, along with most of the strategic community in India expected the Prime Minster to act tough on the border question. Clearly, there is a pro-China group within the strategic community, which wants India to underplay the border tension and expand the economic ties with China. In fact, the Prime Minister himself seems to be in this section, trying to focus more on the economic ties.

Interaction with China should not be either - or strategy in terms of whether India should work with China, or pursue a conflicting relationship. As the political status, economy and strategic interests grow, both India and China are likely to compete with each other in many spheres. But, this competition need not necessarily be a conflicting one. On the other hand, given India’s growing relationship with the US, and expanding interests in the Asia-Pacific, both countries are likely to pursue a conflicting path.

The global strategic interests of China and India, and their regional aspirations in the Asia-Pacific is likely to impact on India-China border conflict, and also increase tension in the China-Pakistan-India triangle. While India cannot afford to be totally pacifist and avoid any strong response, especially on its vital interests within in its border, or elsewhere, India cannot also afford to be jingoistic. India’s response has to be strong, but not war mongering.

Vis-a-vis Pakistan, it is also time that New Delhi decides what it wants to do with Pakistan, in terms of bilateral relationship. However, the unfortunate truth is “New Delhi” is not monolithic in terms of what it wants to do. The Prime Minister’s Office, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Home Affairs are deeply divided over a policy towards Pakistan. While the policymakers in these ministries try to hide behind “public opinion” or “lack of consensus” in the Parliament, the hard truth is our political elite in Delhi is deeply divided over how we see Pakistan, and what we want to develop, in terms of a long term relationship.

Undoubtedly, Pakistan is not a monolith. There is a huge divide between the political parties and the military; irrespective of whichever party comes to power, led by the PML-N or the PPP, the general belief is – the real power lies with the military. There is enough statistical evidence to prove such a belief that in terms of Pakistan’s India policy, the real power lies with the military and not the elected Prime Minister.

So what should India do vis-a-vis Nawaz Sharif? Should India attempt to pursue a cautious policy and do nothing vis-a-vis building a long term relationship with Nawaz Sharif? Or, should India go beyond the question over “trust” and the ability of a Pakistani Prime Minister to deliver on India-Pakistan relationship.

On this question, there is a need to relook India’s expectation towards Pakistan, and in particular the new Prime Minister. He will not “deliver” Kashmir to India; nor he will eliminate the Laskar-e-Toiba completely from Pakistan. Nor he will become a “super” Prime Minister of Pakistan and bring its powerful military under his total control. He will not even be able to exert a reasonable pressure on the ISI, forget the rest of military. He may neither give a complete go ahead to India to do what it wants in Afghanistan.

If the above a reasonable assumption of what Nawaz Sharif is unlikely to deliver, should India keep away from him and not engage Pakistan? While there will always be a trust factor in how India sees Pakistan and its elected leadership, the same will also be true vis-a-vis how Pakistani Prime Minister sees India. In a sense, his situation is worse than the Indian Prime Minister, for he has to constantly look over his shoulder to find out what the opposition, especially the religious political parties, military and the militants are likely to do vis-a-vis his India policy.

So, what should be a strategy vis-a-vis the new Prime Minister in Pakistan? While jumping readily into a peace process is also a sign of weakness, refusing to engage a country because of what had happened in the past, is also equally a sign of weakness. Irrespective of whether Sharif will be able to “deliver” on the above questions, India will have to engage Nawaz Sharif, especially on Kashmir, and other CBMs covering a wide spectrum.

J&K may be a good place to start this process, especially over cross-LoC CBMs. India should move ahead and expand the CBMs, make the cross-LoC trade fruitful and a “Kashmiri” CBM. Even if India has to make certain unilateral gestures on cross-LoC trade, New Delhi should move ahead. Indian economy is too strong and New Delhi should not be petty. India should also propose larger cross-LoC CBMs, especially in the movement of people and move beyond just divided families. These are small measures, but have a huge impact not only along the LoC, but also across the international border.

While talking peace always may be a sign of weakness, shying away from it will also become a weakness, and only strengthen the hardliners.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir