Whether the slight movement we are seeing towards a thaw in India-Pakistan relations will result in anything significant is unclear. But this much is clear: there are limits to how far relations can improve with Pakistan. The huge and growing imbalance of power between India and Pakistan will ensure the neighbouring country is always insecure, and this insecurity will drive its efforts to continue to counter India. This should not be surprising.
Pakistan’s choices so far have been bad for itself. It has better options, but it may not necessarily take those.
The Narendra Modi government can hope that the Pakistani elite will realise how running an intense competition with India is only going to ensure the country remains mired in the eddies of poverty and backwardness. Perhaps this realisation will put Pakistan on a different course. This may have been what Pakistan Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa was hinting at in his recent speech, though a lot of scepticism is obviously warranted.
In need of a common threat
Has Pakistan’s strategic calculus changed? Structural conditions such as the relative balance of power exert a strong influence on how nations behave, but the conditions are not inevitable, nor are nations destined to be enemies. Under different conditions, states can even become allies despite such conditions. France and Germany fought for decades before they became allies, mainly because a greater common threat emerged in Europe in the form of the Soviet Union. It is forgotten today that Canada and the US had made war plans against each other in the interwar years. Today, they share the longest unguarded land border in the world and jointly host missile defences because they became allies against Hitler’s Germany and later the Soviet Union. No such common threat has emerged yet that could successfully bring India and Pakistan together, but the point is that it need not be ruled out, even if it appears unlikely today.
But even without the emergence of a common threat, Pakistan’s calculations could possibly change because of another factor: the sheer difficulty of seeking equality of power with a country that now has an economy almost ten times its own. This should lead to a rethink in Islamabad, and even Rawalpindi. The rethinking will not mean that Pakistan will stop trying to balance India within the limits of its capabilities. Indeed, all of India’s neighbours seek, when they can, to balance Indian power. New Delhi should accept that such behaviour is to be expected because of India’s material dominance in South Asia, and tolerate it as long as it does not cross certain thresholds, such as sponsoring terrorism or giving base facilities to adversarial powers. Pakistan is obviously much larger and stronger, and thus different, from India’s other neighbours such as Sri Lanka. This difference matters only in degree, not in kind — even for Pakistan, trying to keep pace with Indian power is much too difficult.
Nevertheless, Pakistan could continue to maintain a capable military force to defend itself. Having nuclear weapons means Pakistan can always ensure its survival, considering that large sections of Pakistanis appear to believe that the very survival of the country is threatened by India. And Pakistan will continue to depend on alliance partners to balance Indian power. It would be foolish to expect that Pakistan would not seek to use China, especially now that the latter has the material means to help Islamabad in its pursuit.
Pakistan is mostly hurting itself
What Pakistan does not have to do is exhaust itself in trying to keep pace with India. For decades, Pakistan spent on the military far more than India, proportionate to its GDP, in a futile attempt to reach this mirage of equality. And Pakistan continues to do so, despite its worsening economic and social conditions. While not all of Pakistan’s woes stem from this disproportionate military spending – India’s social indices aren’t that much better despite lower military spending, for example – reducing the intensity of competition with India may allow Pakistan to at least address some of its domestic problems better. Hopefully, Pakistan’s leaders and elites will realise that trying to compete with India is a futile exercise.
But this competition has other negative effects on Pakistan. For example, Pakistan uses terrorism as a grand strategy, necessitated by its relative weakness. The problem, though, is that terror is also ultimately of limited utility as a grand strategy because it does little to correct either the military or economic imbalance with India. Seeing attacks like the 2008 Mumbai terror attack on live television may provide temporary psychic satisfaction to some in Pakistan, but they contain little strategic benefit for the neighbouring country itself.
Indeed, the net effect is clearly negative because it identifies Pakistan as a sponsor of terror. This carries at least some negative consequences, like the troubles Pakistan faces with international agencies such as the FATF (Financial Action Task Force), even if these are far less than what Indian security managers may hope.
Equally importantly, this rivalry has had serious domestic consequences, elevating the role of the military and security services, undermining Pakistan’s democracy and civil society, and ultimately ensuring that Pakistan falls even farther behind India. Three decades after Paul Kennedy argued against States over-extending themselves because it could lead to serious decline, Pakistan is showing that this proposition can apply to countries other than the great powers.
Pakistan’s insecurity about India is understandable and something it shares with others in South Asia. How it has responded to that insecurity, unfortunately, has only served to heighten it by further weakening Pakistan itself. But even within the conditions it faces, Pakistan can make better choices than it has so far.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)