The Indian-Pakistani rivalry goes back decades. The two nuclear adversaries are not antagonistic strictly because of the contested Kashmir region; rather their complex deteriorating relations are intertwined with a series of other geopolitical, security and economic issues.
Mild indicators of a potential rapprochement have happened in the past few weeks. Though not sufficient to overcome the long history of conflict, bloody as it was, it could be a starting point.
For decades, leaders of both countries exploited the conflict to accumulate popularity in their electoral bases. Confronting an enemy and demonizing it has always been used as a tactic employed by leaders. Pakistan and India are no exception in this regard. Despite all impediments, a deal that reduces tensions could be politically and economically beneficial for both countries.
The historical conflict has imposed on Pakistan the continued allocation of enormous defense budgets. The country currently confronts a dire economic situation with crippling inflation rates. Similarly, India’s unemployment rate has reached a staggering 23 percent, a figure that was deeply aggravated by introducing COVID-19 measures and lockdowns.
Also, numerous geopolitical factors are piling up that affect their mutual relationship. As New Delhi approaches further to Tokyo and participates actively in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (along with Japan, the United States and Australia), Pakistan has been part of the Belt and Road Initiative led by China.
With rival affiliations, embarking on a peaceful settlement between the two could be a game-changer in South Asia. Pakistan needs to revive ties with Washington which could benefit in turn from its outreach to Afghanistan, a pivot state from which the US plans to withdraw its troops soon.
Though Washington might rely on a larger Indian role under a United Nations umbrella post-withdrawal from Afghanistan, Islamabad could also have an instrumental role to play in Kabul.
Pakistan seems to be planning a policy shift from geopolitics to geo-economics. When its Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa openly called for burying differences with India last month, he also stipulated four main pillars for the region.
These were: moving towards enduring peace inside the region and out; non-interference in the affairs of neighbors and the region: boosting intra-regional trade and connectivity, and bringing sustainable development by widening investments and establishing economic hubs.
A long-term vision that requires gradual nurturing of good relations, the aim of introducing change in South Asia needs a starting point.
The two countries renewed the ceasefire in February. India adopted “Vaccine Diplomacy” when it agreed to supply Islamabad with Covid- 19 vaccines, and sporting events bringing competition between the two are on the agenda. Are those sufficient steps? Of course not. Could they be a starting point? Yes.
Intermittent backchannel talks have not been negative. When Islamabad raised its concerns about increasing repression in India-held Kashmir (IHK) and voiced its objection to introducing any demographic changes, New Delhi did not express direct explicit categorical refusal. However, India’s continued concern has traditionally been what it called “cross-border terrorism” from non-state actors, an issue Pakistan can handle once its own requests are met.
The complexities of the struggle and the historical burden of the conflict will always exist, but the two states could actively work to reach a breakthrough that would liberate them from being corridor states to other international players.
Both Washington and Beijing could have alternate, or even contradictory views, on this rapprochement, but both could benefit from reducing tension in South Asia.
A US intelligence report issued by the American National Intelligence Council recently released in Washington warned that “a full-scale war [between India and Pakistan] could inflict damage that would have economic and political consequences for years.”
With the two countries already joining the Nuclear Club and possessing near compatible deterrence capacities, war is not in the interest of either. Muscle demonstration is over, and so is the nuclear race. Why not contemplate other options?
With India suffering from unemployment, poverty and overpopulation, and Pakistan fearing water scarcity by 2025, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), economic cooperation between the two could prove highly beneficial for both.
Relations among states are never constructed on whims, but rather on concrete interests. In the case of India and Pakistan, a deal will be a win-win situation.