Strategic desperation could be the reason Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is seeking to improve relations with India. Besieged by its internal politico-strategic environment, achieving peace can benefit Pakistan only if it can barter its real and imagined security concerns for economic relief. A possibility provided by its geographical location; alongside Afghanistan and at the crossroads of South, West and Central Asia. Moreover, unlike Afghanistan, it also has a coastline in proximity to West Asia’s global energy hub.
Thus far, Pakistan has preferred to barter its location to enhance security, even if it was at the cost of its economic well-being. The overarching strategic perspective has been an imagined Indian threat anchored in territorial disputes. Being a rentier State for global powers like the United States and China was its foreign policy preference, which produced patron-client relationships. For several years—and especially after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2020—Beijing has been Islamabad’s chief patron. This has been personified by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Pakistan’s growing dependency on China for protection against international actions on terror activity and modernising its military wherewithal.
However, China’s strategic behaviour indicates that, apart from offering doles, it is unlikely to bail out Pakistan from its contemporary economic crisis. Even loans from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia can only prevent default. The loan from International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is controlled by the US, has not been forthcoming as it comes with unpalatable conditions. Pakistan is therefore caught in a vice.
Pakistan needs peace with India
Seeking peace with India is, therefore, of use only if it can convert that peace to become a hub of trade between Central, West and South Asia. But for this, Afghanistan, the centre of this hub, has to be incorporated into the larger set-up. Although its relations with the Kabul regime have deteriorated, despite enabling the Taliban to assume power. By now, Pakistan has learnt that a Taliban-governed Afghanistan can be an awkward and difficult client.
Ironically, while Pakistan hosted Taliban elements on its soil for several decades, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) continued to use Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks in Pakistan. The Taliban has not made any serious efforts to crack down on them, and cross-border incidents have also not been infrequent. This is not to say that Pakistan has no say in what happens in Afghanistan, but it underlines growing tensions between the two nations that started on a patron-client note.
In 2021, the Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa spoke about promoting a geo-economic vision based on enduring peace, non-interference in neighbouring countries, intra-regional trade and connectivity and development through investment and establishment of economic hubs within the region. Now, PM Shehbaz has echoed similar views. But internally, the ruling dispensation in Pakistan is in the throes of a political contestation with former PM Imran Khan’s PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf).
With Pakistan’s elections due in August 2023 and India’s in 2024, it is evident that politically, Shehbaz calling for peace and admitting that Islamabad has learnt lessons from the three wars is unlikely to change the countries’ troubled relationship with each other. Even later, unless Pakistan forgoes the use of terrorism as a foreign policy tool, there is little room for optimism regarding the improvement of bilateral ties with India.
The strategy trap
For India and Pakistan, use of force to achieve political objectives will continue to be overshadowed by the presence of nuclear weapons. Though both countries are fully aware of this truism, their leadership has not been able to convert this awareness into a state of peace that holds. The reason is that both nations are caged in a strategy trap.
The Pakistan Army believes that bleeding India with a thousand cuts will keep New Delhi imbalanced and weak. They think it is the best strategy to deal with the Indian threat. Pakistan also believes that nuclear weapons protect it from major conventional military threats from India and limit New Delhi’s reaction to terrorist attacks orchestrated by Pakistan.
Trapped in these beliefs, Pakistan has become its own enemy and throttled its geographic potential to the geopolitical imagination of its military leaders, which is steeped in the use of force—primarily through terrorism—for solving political problems. Economic progress has been its main casualty, but now, there is at least some talk about changing its strategic orientation.
For that to happen, India has to provide some reassurance. But India’s military is structured to capture some of Pakistan’s territory. Instead, it should be primarily oriented to defend its own territory and to strike with minimum posturing through long-range firepower based on land, air and sea. The notion of capturing and using Pakistani territory as a bargaining chip to get Pakistan to give up terrorism as a tool of foreign policy must be reviewed. Also, unfortunately, by peddling notions like ‘Akhand Bharat’ and statements like “we are ready to take back PoK,” India’s domestic politics has provided fuel to Pakistan to keep the Indian threat alive.
Should India take a step forward?
Understandably, the growing majoritarian strain of India’s domestic political discourse would only grow shriller as elections approach. Yet, we should strive to improve the uneasy peace, as was done through the ceasefire of 2021. The next step, therefore, could probably be to freeze the territorial dispute. It is a possibility that has been discussed unofficially and may find political traction after Pakistan’s elections in August 2023—provided it finds support from its army. Pre-conditions for such moves would be natural, but that should be left to diplomacy to resolve.
Could India have a problem freezing the territorial dispute and the Kashmir issue? It certainly goes against the ideological moorings of the ruling party. But considering Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political heft, the BJP’s ideological moorings need not be a hindrance for him to support the idea. Notably, will he support the idea before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections? The decision point on that should await the result of Pakistan’s upcoming elections. For now, it would have to be a wait-and-watch situation.
The historical legacy of frictions that animate sub-continental passions can perhaps only be managed, not resolved. Territorial disputes will endure. Therefore, keeping them frozen offers a practical solution that can form the foundation of geo-economic logic driving geopolitical considerations. Unfortunately, the global trend in this regard is adverse. Can South Asia—where countries are also entangled in the growing friction between major/medium powers at the global level—buck the trend? Seems highly unlikely.
Shehbaz may or may not have been playing to the gallery to improve Pakistan’s image. India should not miss out on exploring the possibility of achieving progress in peace negotiations. That both parties remain caged in strategy traps of their own and are reinforced by growing regional and global tensions should not hamper us. That is where diplomacy comes in. Considering that the South Asia economic integration vision involves the future of 25 per cent of humankind, it cannot be too big an ask.
What it boils down to is this: Regardless of the enduring historical legacies, even small steps to improve India-Pakistan relations would count in the larger context of peace and stability on our planet.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)