March 31, 2021

Asia

INDIA/PAKISTAN: A thaw after a long winter?

BY Aditi Phadnis

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( 4 mins)
  • Recent events suggest New Delhi and Islamabad are considering the normalization of relations.
  • India and Pakistan face both geopolitical and economic compulsions.
  • Full diplomatic relations could be followed by a long-stalled South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit.

Cautious hopes are being raised that relations between India and Pakistan might be coming out of a deep freeze where they have been since 2014, with several recent signposts indicating the two adversaries could be getting ready to re-engage. Currently, neither country has its envoy in the other. Diplomatic relations have been downgraded.

On 31 March, Pakistan’s top economic decision-making body, the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC), recommended lifting the 2019 ban on the import of cotton, cotton yarn, and white sugar from India. Sugar will be the third commodity allowed for export from India to Pakistan after Islamabad lifted a ban on medicine and related raw material imports from India in May 2020 to ensure sufficient supplies of essential drugs during the pandemic.

26 March saw a meeting between delegations of the two countries on sharing of Indus river waters, crucial for hydroelectric power and agriculture in both countries. Meant to be held annually, this meeting resumed after nearly two years because of the Covid-19 outbreak but also because relations between New Delhi and Islamabad were strained following cross-border bombings by India on suspected insurgent posts in Balakot (Pakistan) in February 2019.

Earlier in March, the two countries announced that a border ceasefire agreement had been revived. And though a bilateral meeting between Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and his Pakistan counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi, both of whom attended the Heart of Asia conference in Dushanbe earlier in March, did not take place, there was a groundswell of speculation and expectation that it would, leading to political pressure on governments of both countries to revive talks.

The first signs that Pakistan needed to resume ties with India came in a speech made by Pakistan Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa earlier in March, underlining the importance of burying the past in the interests of geo-economics.

The speech triggered an internal debate on why geo-economics must not disguise ‘defeat’. Pakistan’s diplomatic elite was bitterly critical of India’s 2019 move to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its coveted constitutional status of (relative) autonomy within the Indian union, something Pakistan has always leveraged to claim that the merger of the strategic (and biggest Muslim-majority state in India) region with India was illegal. For Pakistan, the status of Kashmir has been the ‘core’ issue in all arguments between the two countries. India, however, believes there can be no talks while terror groups patronized by the Pakistani establishment are used as an extension of foreign policy.

Geopolitics

However, economic and geopolitical realities are catching up with both countries. While the Pakistani economy is facing severe stress, India has only just managed to recover from a near-war with China on an un-demarcated border with no guarantee that another skirmish will not break out. In addition to military pressure on two fronts, India is beginning to reconcile itself to the fact that US-brokered talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan could establish a government in Kabul that would be in the complete thrall of the Pakistani military establishment; and being in denial about the Taliban’s power could only put sizeable Indian assets, political and infrastructural, in Afghanistan at risk.

Diplomatic relations

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan publicly said last week that India has to be the one to make the first move. What he expects is not clear. But a signpost will be resumption of full diplomatic relations. This could be followed by a summit meeting of the members of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), on hold since 2014. The 2016 summit was to be held in Islamabad. However, after the terrorist attack on an Indian Army camp in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir in September of that year, India refused to attend. An Islamabad summit will be a big breakthrough – if India decides to attend.

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