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June 2, 2022
Slow Moving Diplomacy in South Asia Makes Headway
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Rose Gordon

After more than a year and a half of silence, peppered by occasional threats and accusations, India and Pakistan are considering a range of options in order to re-establish ties that have been severely strained since the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament. These include assigning an ambassador to each other’s capital; resuming civil air, rail, and road links; hosting bilateral sporting events or other people-to-people exchanges; and making a serious effort to address the decades-old dispute over Kashmir.

The first hint of the possibility for improved relations between the two countries came from a speech by Indian Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee while he was visiting the Indian-held portion of the Kashmir region April 18-19. Vajpayee spoke of “extending the hand of friendship” to Pakistan and of the possibility for new talks between the two countries. At a press conference before returning to New Delhi, however, he indicated that India has its own conditions, saying, “Let us see how Pakistan responds to this” and indicating that talks would depend on whether there is a decrease in the number of anti-India militants crossing from Pakistan into India’s portion of Kashmir.

Pakistan responded in a press briefing several days later, saying that it welcomed Vajpayee’s initiative and hoped that negotiations would begin immediately.

Diplomatic efforts were further bolstered by an April 28 telephone call from Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali to Vajpayee. According to statements by both leaders, the conversation focused on new peace possibilities between India and Pakistan. Following the telephone conversation, Pakistan released a number of Indian prisoners and suggested the resumption of bus services between Pakistan and India. India responded to these gestures by releasing Pakistani prisoners and approving a Delhi-Lahore bus service simultaneously May 26.

Despite these steps, concrete progress has so far been limited. India appointed Shivshankar Menon May 13 to be the next high commissioner to Islamabad, and Pakistan followed up by naming Aziz Ahmed Khan as its commissioner two weeks later. But it is uncertain when either will take his position. Furthermore, although both India and Pakistan have agreed to resume aviation ties, flights have yet to begin.

Leaders and diplomats in both countries have said that this new peace initiative will be a slow, step-by-step process.

The efforts at resuming dialogue have been strongly backed by the United States, which views its relationship with the two countries as strategically significant. President George W. Bush plans to receive Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf June 24 at Camp David to discuss ways to “further deepen and broaden the bilateral ties between the United States and Pakistan,” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said May 20. Vice President Dick Cheney is also expected to meet with India’s Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani this June in Washington.

During a May visit to South Asia, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said he is “cautiously optimistic” that recent events could lead to substantial improvements in Indian-Pakistani relations. Armitage met with Vajpayee and Jamali, as well as Musharraf, during a previously scheduled trip to the region May 5 to May 11.

U.S. Policy in the Region

“[I]t has become very clear that the most vital interests of the United States are affected by events in South Asia,” Christina Rocca, assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, testified to the House International Relations Committee in March. “The continuing success of our alliance against terror and other initiatives in South Asia depends on productive and effective long-term relationships with each of the countries in the region, combined with economic growth, stability, and the strengthening of democratic institutions,” she added.

Since September 11, 2001, Pakistan has become an increasingly important U.S. ally, including arresting some al Qaeda members within its borders. In exchange for Pakistan’s help in the war on terror, the United States has increased economic assistance to Pakistan in the education and health sectors, as well as in law enforcement and military aid. As recently as May 20, Fleischer called Pakistan a “stalwart ally in the war on terror.”

Meanwhile, the military relationship between India and Pakistan has been growing. For example, Washington recently informed New Delhi that the United States no longer objects to Israel and India going ahead with a deal for an advanced airborne early warning system called the Phalcon. The United States, which convinced Israel to abandon a similar sale to China in July 2000, had tacitly approved the Israeli sale of the Phalcon to India more than a year ago, but Washington had urged Israel to postpone the sale because of heightened tensions in South Asia at that time. Delivery of the Phalcon to India will likely take place about two years after a deal is finalized.

U.S. and Indian officials are also expected to meet in July to discuss the possibility of boosting high technology trade, including some dual-use goods that have civilian and military applications, as part of an agreement signed in February by U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce Kenneth Juster and Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal.

The Kashmir Dilemma

Many U.S. and South Asian analysts say India and Pakistan must resolve their dispute over Kashmir in order to achieve true stability in South Asia. The two countries agree that the issue is important, but they propose different avenues for solving it. India believes the issue of Kashmir is up to India and Pakistan alone to resolve. The United States might help facilitate the peace process, but real progress will have to be made on outstanding issues between Pakistan and India, an Indian diplomat in Washington said during a May 16 interview.

Pakistan, however, has expressed an interest in having a third party intervene. Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri said he hopes the United States “remains engaged in South Asia” during a May 15 speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., adding that “sometimes we need friends” to get a conversation started.

It is unclear exactly what role the United States is willing to play. Armitage was reluctant to take a position on Kashmir or to offer the United States as a mediator. “We’ve often said that this is a problem to be solved between the two parties and a dialogue between the two parties…If we can be helpful in sort of setting the atmosphere surrounding that, then we’re delighted to do so,” Armitage told Pakistani media during his May visit.

The issues of Kashmir and terrorism have proved to be more than just minor hurdles in the latest round of peace initiatives. India asserts that attacks on Indian targets by militants crossing the border from within Pakistan must stop before high-level talks can take place. Pakistan denies that it offers anything more than moral support to the militants.

Meanwhile, India continued to test its ballistic missile arsenal. India’s Ministry of Defense annouced a successful launch of the Prithvi II on April 29 and the first test of the Astra on May 9. The Hindu also reported tests of the Astra on May 11 and the Akash on May 29. Pakistan did not respond with its own tests. Such tests have stirred animosity and reciprocal testing in the past, but the two countries seem to have scaled back the usual hostile responses in the wake of the diplomatic movement. “The mood on both sides is not as bad as two months ago,” the Indian diplomat said.