Mending fences with neighbours

Mending fences with neighbours

The recently resumed dialogue with two of India’s most significant neighbours—China and Pakistan—reflects New Delhi’s earnestness in mending fences in its immediate neighbourhood. Even though the results of these are far from spectacular, they are significant for a number of reasons.

In the case of Pakistan, the fact that the dialogue was resumed at all is particularly noteworthy. Indeed, the extraordinary internal turmoil in Pakistan, including challenges to the all-powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, from within the military; growing evidence of links between Osama bin Laden and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammed (both India); and the incident at sea between PNS Babur and INS Godavari could have easily sunk the foreign secretaries’ meeting in Islamabad.

Creditably, however, not only did the meeting take place, it touched on the contentious issues of terrorism, Kashmir and nuclear-related confidence-building measures (CBMs) and also produced a joint statement, which led to a rare and amicable joint press conference.

The most important aspect of the meeting is that it is strengthening the institutionalization of dialogue, which has frequently been derailed by events. This is essential to ensure that the process is insulated from the unpredictable upheavals that stymie the dialogue at a time that it is most needed.

A related advantage is that the more India and Pakistan talk, the more ordinary and predictable the process will become and the greater the chance of a major breakthrough. Until now the Indo-Pak dialogue has been so erratic that every outing generates unrealistic expectations and becomes a media circus.

One example of the success of the quiet approach is the 1991 “Prohibition of Attack against Nuclear Installations and Facilities" agreement, which is the only one of its kind in the world. As part of this agreement both sides have routinely exchanged their list of nuclear facilities on 1 January every year even when they were almost at war with each other (in 2001-2002). Granted, while such declaratory CBMs are useful, they are hardly likely to dramatically improve bilateral relations. In this context, the call in the joint statement for expert level meetings to strengthen “existing (CBM) arrangements and to consider additional measures" is commendable. Clearly, all the existing arrangements can be further deepened, for instance, by including a verification component.

Moreover, new CBMs, such as extending the non-attack agreement to cover cities and including cruise missiles in the bilateral agreement that covers pre-flight notification of missile tests (at present confined to ballistic missiles) should be considered. In addition, the recent incident at sea between the two warships, even though they were both engaged in rescuing a merchant ship as part of international efforts against piracy, underlines the need to establish rules of cooperation at sea. One option might be to consider joint naval exercises, an offer first made by the Indian navy in 2008. Clearly, even without a major breakthrough there is much that can be done to prevent further deterioration of India-Pakistan relations.

Similarly, while no major advance is likely in Sino-Indian relations because of the postponed visit of an Indian army delegation to China, it is nonetheless crucial because it keeps open the crucial dialogue between the two militaries. The fact that the Indian delegation visited not only Beijing and Shanghai but also Xinjiang, where the Chinese military is battling an Uighur uprising, is significant. Clearly the two armies might find common ground on dealing with insurgents. Moreover, this visit might pave the way for China and India, to deepen and widen the previous agreements, particularly the 1996 agreement which focuses on CBMs in the military field.

India’s dialogue with its immediate neighbours should have three critical components: regularity, managing expectations and making slow progress. Without these small but crucial steps, no normalization is likely.

W Pal Sidhu is Senior Fellow, Centre on International Cooperation at New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

Comments are welcome at