The meeting of prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi at Ufa, Russia, seems to be unfolding in a typical South Asian manner — each side claiming to have gained something vis-a-vis each other without really gaining anything beyond a good photo-op. But Ufa was not meant to be a Pakistan-India moment. This was basically about Eurasian powers getting together to reorganise international politics, at least as it applied to them, and expecting the two South Asian states to get in line so the process could move on.
The world, particularly Russia and China, are concerned about containing terrorism and political Islam. Beijing is concerned about its soft underbelly and does not want to confront the same problems, which Russia in its previous life as the Soviet Union, encountered in once sorting out similar issues in Afghanistan. The similarity ends here as China currently has a comparative advantage. Unlike the former Soviet Union, China has good links with Pakistan; in fact, Islamabad has a growing dependency on Beijing. China also has good working relations with India and a common purpose in terms of fighting terrorism. Thus, the expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Ufa to include India and Pakistan, is meant to bring greater security and political strength.
Many years ago, while pursuing my doctoral studies in England, I got into a conversation with a senior South Korean colleague, who explained to me how the evolving political framework in the future would lay emphasis on strategic groupings, and not necessarily on individual states, especially the recalcitrant ones. What seemed premature then, has shaped up over the years. In any case, regional organisational structures allow for diplomatic contestation and dialogue. India and China will still compete, but also be part of a regional coalition where they can debate their interests and cooperate. In addition, a regional arrangement helps bigger states to formalise and maximise the influence they have at a bilateral level as well.
The issue here is how quick is South Asia in picking up the changing dynamics? There is a lot that can be learnt from Beijing, especially in reference to not making hostility a zero-sum game. You can contest an issue without letting it get into the way of good business. Money can provide greater long-term leverage than any amount of military manoeuvres could. China has multiplied its gains in South Asia by making major investments in numerous states. Many of these projects may get contested by human rights and social activists because these only cater to Chinese interests or that of the local ruling elite, but then political and social activism is fast turning into an undesirable concept in many states — from Myanmar and Sri Lanka to Pakistan. Islamabad’s latest belligerence towards NGOs is also driven by the state’s need to ensure smooth passage for Chinese investment. Notwithstanding many inherent problems, the formal civil society is the only element that could protest when expansion of bilateral relations, free trade agreements and other facilities start impacting on the lives of the ordinary folk in Pakistan.
From a regional peace perspective, India perhaps, can gain far more in guaranteeing its security against low-intensity conflict, which is not considered desirable by Russia, China, Iran and even the US. It seems that China and the US may have played a greater role in calming Modi down and convincing him to shake hands with and talk to Sharif. A few months ago, in light of the statements from India’s National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, and New Delhi’s insistence on keeping the Lakhvi issue central to initiation of talks, the two prime ministers would not have warmed to each other, leave alone issue a joint statement. Also, with eyes on a permanent seat in the UN, the Indian prime minister might have realised that regional business might have to be conducted differently, particularly when other powers and significant regional states are not yet ready to sideline Islamabad.
Modi would certainly have to be careful and imaginative in marketing his turn domestically. Between him and Doval, expectations have now arisen that Pakistan will be dealt with a firm hand. Notwithstanding the details of what Sharif and his team whispered in his ears, the fact is that there are doubts whether the Lakhvi trial will reach the conclusion New Delhi hopes for. Lakhvi just refused to give a voice sample and a federal minister, Lt. General (retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch, rewrote organisational history by saying that there is no link between Laskhkar-e-Taiba and Jamaatud Dawa. Given the consistent showcasing of the extremist network’s welfare activities, even societal opposition to it seems to have weakened considerably. Under the circumstances, the only guarantee for India is through an organisational framework, which enhances its security, while leaving the rest to the gods.
In Pakistan’s case, on the other hand, the projection of Ufa as a disaster is annoying. Sartaj Aziz’s statement reassuring the domestic audience of the continued significance of the Kashmir issue, even though it was not written in bold in the joint statement, is being presented as an about-turn or as mere troubleshooting. Meanwhile, the grapevine is abuzz with conspiracies, condemning Sharif’s naivety that may result in a political disaster for his government. Furthermore, given that in the past six months to a year, everything unpleasant and tragic in Pakistan was done by India’s RAW, the move at Ufa seems to have hit many in the media hard. But the pretense of anger towards Sharif may be somewhat deliberate to create a necessary cushion in case some alteration has to be made. Depending on the need and situation in such a case, the establishment could easily abandon the initiative by blaming it all on the civilian prime minister. This may be followed by analysts and the media ensuring that people forget that Sharif was not alone in deciding to shake hands with Modi. This will not necessarily be like a pre-Kargil situation. However, what various power centres in Pakistan ought to learn is that our extended region cannot afford any mis-adventure. Islamabad should work on enhancing its social, economic, political and diplomatic potential. It must certainly look at the world from beyond the military security prism.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2015.
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