India, Pakistan foreign ministers agree to take ties forward

India, Pakistan foreign ministers agree to take ties forward

New Delhi: India and Pakistan on Wednesday agreed to keep up their engagement, bolstering their recently resumed peace process with confidence-building measures to reduce the trust deficit caused by the 2008 Mumbai attacks, but simmering differences were apparent, especially over Kashmir.

While the overall tenor of the talks was positive, Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao described the agenda ahead as one of “hope" tempered with “cautious optimism".

A joint statement at the end of talks between Indian foreign minister S.M. Krishna and his Pakistan counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar said the dialogue was held in a “candid, cordial and constructive atmosphere" signifying exchanges on key issues such as terrorism, which India says is its central concern vis-a-vis Pakistan, to Kashmir, which Pakistan describes as the core dispute between the two countries.

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The confidence-building steps announced include increasing the number of days traders are allowed to do business across the de facto Line of Control (LoC) border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir from two days a week to four, strengthening infrastructure for trade, including upgrading communication systems, expanding travel to include tourism and pilgrimages, increasing the frequency of the buses connecting Srinagar with Muzaffarabad and Poonch with Rawalakot, and relaxing permit conditions for travel across the LoC.

“The ministers agreed that increase in trade and economic engagement between the two countries would be mutually beneficial," the statement said, calling for the reduction or removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers.

In a bid to widen the ambit of the India-Pakistan dialogue, both sides have decided to revive the ministerial joint commission first set up in the early 1980s but mostly defunct since then.

“Under the circumstances, I think the two sides have done as much as they could," said C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the National Maritime Foundation, referring to relations between the two countries in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

At least 166 people were killed in the siege in which 10 terrorists from the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group targeted multiple locations in Mumbai. India had called off a four-year-old peace process following the attacks.

“Structurally, the backdrop to India-Pakistan relations—the issue of Kashmir, terrorism, etc.—remain the same. All that the two sides have done is to make the political environment less confrontational than before by picking the low-hanging fruit," Bhaskar said.

The joint statement on Wednesday said the two countries “affirmed the importance of carrying forward the dialogue process with a view to resolving peacefully all outstanding issues through constructive and result-oriented engagement, and to establish friendly, cooperative and good neighbourly relations between Pakistan and India."

“The ministers underlined the need for sustained build a relationship of trust and mutually beneficial cooperation in conformity with the determination of the people of both countries to see an end to terrorism and violence and to realize their aspirations for peace and development," the two sides said. “It was also decided that the foreign ministers will meet again in Islamabad in the first half of 2012 to review progress in the dialogue process."

But a reminder of the problems along the way came with India registering its unhappiness with Pakistan over Khar meeting separatists from Kashmir on Tuesday soon after her arrival in New Delhi and before her meeting with Krishna.

“Neither of us underestimate the difficulties involved. There are divergences and that divergence was illustrated yesterday (Tuesday)," Rao said referring to the Khar-Hurriyat meeting. “We have a very different point of view from Pakistan on that particular issue," she said, adding India’s view was put across in a “frank and candid" manner.

Earlier in the day, Khar who at 34 is Pakistan’s youngest and first woman foreign minister, hailed the deliberations, saying: “This is indeed a new era of bilateral cooperation between the two countries... It is our desire, and I believe after having spoken to you, Mr. Foreign Minister, that it is the desire of both the governments, to make it an uninterrupted and an uninterruptable process."

Without referring to Kashmir, Khar spoke about the need for “a productive, result-oriented and credible dialogue".

Krishna, in his comments, said he was “satisfied at the progress" of the official-level talks.

“While being fully cognizant of the challenges that lie ahead, I can confidently say that our relations are on the right track," he said. “We have some distance to travel, but with an open mind and a constructive approach...we can reach our desired destination of having a friendly and cooperative relationship between the two countries."

Bhaskar pointed out that the references to strengthening cooperation in counter-terrorism “including among relevant departments as well as agencies to bring those responsible for terror crimes to justice" and agreeing to discuss nuclear confidence-building measures in the joint statement were significant.

“In terms of intent, these are important. But much depends on the integrity with which these are implemented. That would be the litmus test," he said.