Home / Opinion / Pakistan’s tale of tangled tangoes

The tango is a complex dance of marked rhythms and abrupt pauses. If executed well, it is poetry in motion; otherwise it is an ungraceful jumble of limbs. Last week two crucial bilateral diplomatic dances, sadly, epitomized the latter peril.

First was the much anticipated opening dance in Washington DC between Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and US President Barack Obama. Then came the last dance in Beijing between retiring Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Chinese counterpart.

In both instances, the couples were unevenly matched: one partner clearly dominated and led while the other was a supplicant follower. In addition, both Sharif and Singh were stymied by domestic politics to make bold initiatives. Unsurprisingly, neither came away with significant breakthroughs.

In Washington Sharif’s passionate plea for stopping the drone strikes in Pakistan, though courteously heard, was laid bare by a conveniently leaked secret memo to the Washington Post newspaper revealing an explicit US-Pakistan agreement on their use. Predictably, then the joint statement made no mention of the issue of drone strikes, let alone any US commitment to reduce or stop them.

In fact the summit meeting, despite the polite platitudes to start anew, belies the deep and bitter suspicion that Washington and Islamabad bear towards each other. In a recent book, aptly titled No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad, Daniel Markey, a former US state department official, argues for Washington to prepare for the worst and aim for the best. Markey draws out four scenarios for Pakistan, three of which—basket case; garrison state; and terrorist incubator—paint bleak prospects for its future. Only one scenario—youthful idealist – provides a modicum of promise.

Markey identifies China (rather than India) as another key interlocutor. He cautions that if Beijing is unable to manage its ally, Pakistan may well turn into a North Korean-esque Frankenstein of South Asia with dangerous consequences not only for China but India and the US too.

The China-Pakistan nexus also shadowed Singh’s last tango in Beijing. His arrival coincided with the start of the construction by China of two new 1000 megawatts (MW) nuclear plants in Karachi, in violation of the nuclear suppliers group guidelines, which New Delhi had earlier protested. Yet, it is not clear that this issue was raised in Beijing. Even it was taken up, it would have fallen on polite but deaf ears.

Instead, India understandably focused on an agreement to ease tensions along the disputed border. The Border Defence Cooperation Agreement, the fifth of its kind related to the India-China border areas, reflects the weakness of previous efforts. Though commendable on paper, the effectiveness of the new agreement will be tested against its ability to prevent the next potential military standoff.

Perhaps the most significant (and least appreciated) aspect of the China visit was the visionary speech of Singh at the Central Party School, which identified eight domestic, bilateral, regional and global challenges that confront both countries and laid out a joint strategic framework to tackle them. Were this framework made operational, it would not only draw China and India closer but would also help shape the emerging world order.

Alas, like most of the recent initiatives by New Delhi, the speech would have had a greater import were it delivered in the early rather than the dying days of the Singh administration. Unless the next government embraces it, the speech and its vision will fade into oblivion.

In the short term, Pakistan, which will receive military and civilian aid worth $1.6 billion from the US (not to mention the reactors from China), clearly benefited the most from this inaugural dance. Not a bad prize for a tangled tango.

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