Russian President V.Putin plans to visit Islamabad in the not too distant future. The talks promise a rich agenda which includes the inking of 12 agreements on the bilateral cooperation between Russia and Pakistan in a variety of spheres.
The logic of the ongoing global regrouping compels Moscow to re-establish itself in the regions where it lost the former influence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. South Asia is a key stage for the comeback – both Delhi and Islamabad readily credit Russia with pursuing the region's stability with no strings attached, and the mission must be particularly welcome as the international coalition braces for the Afghan withdrawal. Discord between India and Pakistan being deeply entrenched, a lot will depend on how far the two countries are ready to go to inject predictability into their relations and, accordingly, into the wider regional policy climate.
Tensions between India and Pakistan persist since the 1947 partition of the subcontinent. Oddly enough, it has never helped to dispel the lingering hostility that, in fact, the countries have a lot in common in terms of geographic conditions, cultural background, and political legacy.
India and Pakistan have had diplomatic relations since gaining independence, but the partition of Hindustan along religious lines and the accompanying territorial disputes led to the chaotic displacement of over 12,5 million people and to fatalities estimated at several hundreds of thousands to one million. Three serious military conflicts – the 1947, 1965, and 1971 wars – and the less intense, unannounced Kargil War erupted as a result, and local-scale sporadic fighting flared up in the Indian-Pakistani border zone with considerable regularity.
A series of attempts to build reasonable relations have been made by India and Pakistan against the backdrop of the occasionally bloody rivalry. The 1972 Simla Agreement defined the key principles for the normalization and served to create foundations for future progress: by signing it, India and Pakistan pledged to resolve problems by peaceful means and via dialog. The 1999 Lahore Declaration which said that the countries, both nuclear-armed by the time, would be honestly taking each other's interests into account in handling bi-lateral issues, and the 2001 Agra Summit marked important achievements as Delhi and Islamabad inched towards a healthier form of coexistence.
In 1980, India's diplomatic envoy to Islamabad and would-be external affairs minister Kunwar Natwar Singh described the relations between India and Pakistan as some sort of a diabolic web, and in many regards the view seems to apply even these days. An extremely broad array of issues – historical memories, recurring prejudice, the chronic character of territorial disputes, occasionally vague perceptions of national identities, religious and ideological strife, and the permanent fear of ending up defenseless vis-a-vis the neighbor – factor into the intrigue, and the inertia of mistrust shows little signs of waning.
The pictures of the public opinion in India and Pakistan alike fully reflect the sense of uneasiness hanging over the situation. Polls currently show that some 50% of the population in India and 46% – in Pakistan are convinced that the neighboring country poses a critical threat, while only 13% in the former and 28% in the latter say they feel that there is practically no reason to worry. The view widely held in India is that nothing but a deep overhaul of the Pakistani statehood, including the amputation of what they see as its aggressively anti-Indian ideology, can bring about a real recovery in the relations between India and Pakistan. Indian analysts largely attribute Pakistan's ideological accentuation to negative dynamics within the country's society. From this perspective, the problems confronting Pakistan are:
1. Explosive population growth. At the moment, Pakistan's population tops 190 million and is projected by the national administration to reach 240-250 million by 2030. Naturally, the swelling strata of urban lows and impoverished rural dwellers tends to be receptive to politicized Islam.
2. Political and ideological shifts indirectly linked to the population growth. The spread of radical doctrines like the Wahhabi brand of Islam increasingly makes the Pakistani society deaf to any propaganda of the liberal development models and erodes the originally tolerant and religiously pluralistic legacy of Hindustan. Quite a few scholars within Pakistan interpret the above as a drift from the traditional South Asian identity to the Arab Muslim one exemplified by Saudi Arabia.
3. The politicization of Islam encouraged in the late 1970ies by Gen. Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq (with the blessing from R. Reagan's Administration) became a long-term trend, and as of today Pakistan's Muslim radicals are an influential force quite capable of wrestling with the army over the leading role in the Pakistani society. Under the conditions, Pakistan's democratic system appears purely decorative to many watchers.
The inability of the Pakistani administrations – civilian or military – to modernize the society in the interests of the whole nation prompts searches for alternative mechanisms to cement the country. Suggested to this end, the new Pakistani identity combines reliance on the national nuclear arms program with the historically rooted hostility towards India. The Pakistani administration quite realistically cites the fairly eclectic idealogical platform as a unifying cause with a strong mass appeal.
Over the past three decades, Pakistan's foreign policy was premised in the assumption that the country should build on its strategic location in the region. For the Pakistani elites, the epic story of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and of the subsequent infamous withdrawal seems to reinforce the view. The Pakistani ruling circles believe that (1) the US is geopolitically bogged down on the Middle East; (2) China is evolving into the main influence in South Asia (economically, China is the number one partner for India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh); (3) the US would unanouncedly consent to Beijing's being the peace keeper in South Asia, which mainly means preventing escalations between India and Pakistan. It is not uncommon for experts to think that Washington expects Beijing to eventually reciprocate by switching to the US side in the simmering political conflicts involving Tehran and Pyongyang. Delhi, it must be noted, opposes mediation in bilateral relations – contributed by China or the US – as such and on principal grounds.
Invisibly, China is a player with considerable weight in the game unfolding between India and Pakistan. Several objectives are discerned behind the Chinese engagement with Pakistan:
• Beijing needs to make sure that Muslim radicals, especially their armed groups, do not proliferate from Pakistan to the the parts of China like the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region which are already a headache to the Chinese administration;
• China would be happy to curb the US influence over Central and South Asia;
• An important stake for China is the control over energy transit routes stretching from the Gulf area to the South China Sea.
• For Beijing, an intricate system of alliances with adjacent countries and relatively distant ones like Sri Lanka should be a way of taming India's ambitions on the continent.
Seeing India and China locked in a competition over South Asia makes Islamabad more confident when talking to Delhi. The positions of the proponents of cultivating ties with India in economy, science, culture, science, etc. are relatively weak in the ranks of the Pakistani elite, while India must be keenly interested in Pakistan's territorial integrity and unity. Balkan-style ethnic conflicts in the country could send flows of Pakistani refugees to India and expose it to booming drug and firearms trade or other ills that would undermine India's governance and ability to attract investments. Experts hope that – given the nuclear status of India and Pakistan – the status quo should work fine since any escalation carries intolerable risks to both. Reportedly, the Indian and Pakistani arsenals count 80-100 and 90-110 nuclear warheads respectively.
Indian premier Manmohan Singh and his cabinet likely foresee that – regardless of how the US, China, and Saudi Arabia prop up Pakistan – the crises brewing with its society will sooner or later necessitate a change of course, adopting a softer tone in the strategic dialog with India being a part of the package. India is ready to foster the looming new tendencies in the Pakistani policy, from time to time by showing off unilateral gestures like premier Singh's saying in the summer of 2009, for the first time ever, that the role India plays in the developments in Balochistan was an admissible theme for discussion (even though Islamabad had no implicating evidence to put on the table).
The minted tactic, though, is not supposed to overshadow the essentials of the Indian strategy which implies permanent combat-readiness and a convincing deterrent coupled to the policy of luring Pakistan into joint economic projects and the sensitivity to shifts in Islamabad on basic bilateral issues such as the Kashmir problem. Truly speaking, the opportunities for compromise between India and Pakistan are limited as in Delhi the opposition – from communists to the Bharatiya Janata Party – responds to premier Singh's reconciliatory maneuvering with outcries. Anyhow, the Indian government continues to act dovishly, as Delhi's amazingly restrained reaction to the 2008 Mumbai drama highlighted.
It is currently of interest to survey the concepts which will underly the policies India tries to implement in dealing with Pakistan. A host of tightly interwoven ideas are on the horizon.
1. It is clear that the Indian ruling circles are under an impression that Pakistan has lost the potential to steer an independent course in the realm of international politics. Pakistan's isolated accomplishments – the attainment of the nuclear status or the Chinese-assisted rapid expansion of transit infrastructures including the Gwadar seaport construction – do not affect the notion, nor does the fact that plenty of international aid converges on Pakistan. Delhi holds strongly that down the road the option of unfreezing the relations with India will prove inescapable for Pakistan.
2. Indian strategists evidently question the extent of the leadership exercised by the army in the Pakistani society. Accounts of frictions between various groups of Pakistan's military – between those who hail from the Punjab and Pashtun provinces, especially – surface routinely in the Indian media. Moreover, some parts of the Pakistani armed forces are known to be connected closely to the Taliban. By the way, there may be an element of truth in the Pakistani claims that India is, in a pair of parallel initiatives, fanning unrest in Balochistan and scheming to gain a foothold in Afghanistan in the wake of the US withdrawal. Thus Delhi supposedly seeks to besiege Pakistan in the west and in the east as it did when the Soviets launched their Afghan campaign. At least – to validate the version – Islamabad constantly explains how heavily India invests in Afghanistan.
3. Delhi is sure that Pakistan has exhausted the potential of its development based on foreign aid and a sweeping militarization of the economy. The pivotal moment draws closer at which the Pakistani elites will have to chart socioeconomic policies and map foreign-policy priorities in earnest, and then the geographic proximity to India will be an argument in favor of cooperation that is not to be ignored. In contrast to the majority of his predecessors, premier Singh is popular across the Indian business community as a defender of its interests and a clever economist. His steps oriented towards the economic involvement with Pakistan would, no doubt, resonate with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the Confederation of Indian Industry.
4. It currently looks like the Indian policy planners anticipate a rift between the Pakistani military and civilian elites as neither has a viable approach to keeping the country stable and both would rush into an allegations exchange when the outlook turns grim. In this light, the reconciliatory policy adopted by premier Singh is remarkably far-sighted: Delhi is thus bringing down the anti-Indian stereotypes among the Pakistani population, leaving the Pakistani elites with no rhetoric platform to marshal the society.
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For Russia, the present state of the Indian-Pakistani relations certainly opens up opportunities to regain positions in South Asia, a region having good chances to become central to the transit of energy resources from the Persian Gulf to the Far East. Moscow also needs greater sway over South Asia to build a barrier in the way of radical Islam to the post-Soviet Central Asia. The main aspects of the Russian activity projected onto the region are listed below.
1. Ahead of the Russian comeback (which can, in part, take the shape of a reversion to the 1960ies Soviet policies), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) should join the Central and South Asia security debate which touches upon issues of major importance to Russia, India, and Pakistan such as the formation of the North-South transit corridor. The employment of the SCO machinery will have a big impact on the relations between Russia and India, the latter still suspecting that the SCO serves as a mere disguise for the Chinese foreign policy. It is in Russia's strategic interests to have India and Pakistan pulled into the SCO orbit as equal partners.
2. The time has come when Russia simply has to mirror the US activity in South Asia. The steps to be taken are to up the level of relations with India to the Soviet-era mark and, at the same time, to fully reconnect with Pakistan. Both Delhi and Islamabad would likely favor Moscow's parallel return… Moreover, the US hyperactivity is a big concern to Beijing which reads the slides in Tibet and Xinjiang as components of a US blueprint for encircling China. As a quartet, India, Pakistan, China, and Russia would be better equipped to arrest destabilizations in South and, ultimately, in Central Asia.
The cooperation between South and Central Asia would get a boost if Russia reinstates the concept of a concert of energy suppliers (Russia, Iran, plus several Central Asian republics) and importers (China, India, Pakistan). Under the arrangement, the grip of external influencers on South Asia and parts of Central Asia would weaken, while partnering India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran in the OCS framework would help to advance Russia's strategic objectives.
It is an easy guess that the context of President V. Putin's tour of Islamabad spans far beyond South Asia. One of the benefits the crisis in Syria offered to the US and its allies was that it could be used to further pressure Russia out of the Muslim world. Tentatively, in Islamabad Putin will lay out Moscow's vision of how the traditional Islam and its radicalized present-day versions interact with the globalizing modern world.