Restoration of Ceasefire: Where are Pakistan & India heading?
Recently, the Directors General Military Operations (DGMOs) of Pakistan and India had talked and agreed to restore the informal 2003 ceasefire understanding between the two countries. At once, this move had given birth to excitement, bringing us to review the matter in a previous column. You can find that here. We had seen that the announcement had not, in fact, come out of the blue and that there had been a steady build up toward it. Next, we had also seen how this “hand of peace” diplomacy had been rooted in years, if not decades, of avowed foreign policy that had sought a peaceful and negotiated settlement to Indo-Pak disputes.
Today, let us try to answer two additional and linked questions: 1) What had all of this meant; and, 2) Where were we heading or what to expect. Now, to answer the first question, we need to look at it from three angles – Pakistan, China and India. For Pakistan, while it is true that the country has emphasized a negotiated settlement with India for the past many decades, a few things have changed over the years.
Foremost amongst them has been the growing realization that economy is extremely important. Note for example that Pakistani foreign minister, Mr. Shah Mehmood Qureshi, had remarked just two weeks ago that Pakistan had “shifted its geo-political priorities into geo-economic priorities”. However, what is more – and what is new – is that this realization has grown within Pakistan’s military. In fact, the man behind the “hand of peace”, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has on at least two occasions (in the Octobers of 2017 and 2019) very notably commented on the economy of the country. In addition, there have been a few other notable statements coming from the military on the economy. Then, what is even newer is that the Pakistani military has even given voice to its realization of such. So, we can deduce that today both civilian and military leadership are on the same page on the economy and that both have begun to see progress on the economy as being tied into our relationship with our neighbor.
Next, the continuing expansion in military capabilities on both sides of Wagah, have served, in the long run, to reduce if not the possibility of a military conflict between the arch-rivals, then at least, its “digestibility”. Most important here is the so-called “Sundarji Doctrine” and Pakistani response to the same that has changed the strategic picture in the region. Here, the Indian army has developed armor-centered offensive capabilities to drive into Pakistan quickly for shallow penetrations, hoping to capture and hold just enough Pakistani territory to gain the upper hand in negotiations post-ceasefire. In response, Pakistan has developed small tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) that do not completely qualify has “nuclear bombs” but are powerful enough to wipe out brigade-sized formations, armor and all. This development has actually lowered the nuclear threshold to a point where even a so-called “limited war” does not seem possible. Imagine, for example, a scenario where Pakistan detonates a TNW to stall an Indian armored thrust but India treats it as a nuclear attack and launches ballistic missiles against Pakistan. Therefore, in brief, a military solution to Indo-Pak disputes has advanced close to, if not into, “not possible” territory. In other words, we can forget Pakistani tanks in Leh and our troops hoisting the national flag at Srinagar. Clearly, our leadership seems to have gotten over those dreams. Negotiations are the “only” solution, our prime minister, Mr. Imran Khan, has said only two weeks prior.
Third, the regional situation is in a very dramatic flux. Enter: Afghanistan. With the “longest American war” coming to an end, next door Afghanistan is open game at the moment. Many regional and global powers are invested in the country for multiple reasons of their own. However, most crucially invested is Pakistan. This is not only because we share a 2,640 kilometer border with the country (our longest). This is also because Pakistan regards Afghanistan with strategic interest. A hostile government in the country is viewed as a practical realization of a “two-front war” for us. Therefore, as the Afghan endgame plays out, it would appear that the Pakistani leadership wants to disengage from other matters and focus on securing our “backyard”. This might be, in part, responsible for the urgency in Islamabad to at least cool down the eastern border.
Finally, Pakistan’s Kashmir cause has taken some very serious hits on the international level. Most notably, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two longstanding sources of support to Pakistan, have both stepped back in recent times and have both called Kashmir “India’s internal matter”. Here, we must credit the Indians for enabling such a dire scenario for Pakistan. Anyway, it is what it is and we must learn to live with the new reality. And, since Saudi Arabia and the UAE have stepped back, it becomes reasonable that other countries would also become divested or disinterested in supporting Pakistan’s position vis-à-vis Kashmir and India. Thus, in the face of withering international support to Pakistan’s Kashmir cause, the country now necessarily has to review options available to itself.
Interestingly, this leads us to China. Whereas, China has lent a lot of support to Pakistan over Kashmir and India, it has also become – by design or by consequence of turning events – a force that advocates the status quo. That is to say, China would prefer tensions to cool down in South Asia and peace to prevail. This is especially so because of its Belt and Road Initiative, at least one arm of which – and, in fact, its flagship arm – the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) goes through the region. More so, the CPEC goes through Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan, which is claimed by India. Tensions here or, more so, a conflict here, would threaten Chinese economic interests. Thus, despite the years of Chinese backing for the Pakistani positions on Kashmir, there is a just-awaking and, perhaps growing, realization that China will not support Pakistan endlessly and, through whatever and everything. Put another way, it is becoming reasonable to say that the Chinese will gradually begin to get weary of the tensions in South Asia. Further, that it would suit China if both sides simply accept what each already controls and settle the matter at that.
In some ways, China has actually demonstrated that it is in favor of a status quo-type situation. One may read any number of Chinese statements on Indo-Pak tensions in recent years, and perhaps one will begin to see tell-tale signs of just this view. However, most importantly, China’s own confrontation with India in Ladakh offers important clues. In this conflict, the Chinese did not seek or take any land that it did not regard as its; simply asked India to accept their 1959 claim line (i.e. what they believed was Chinese territory from the start); and, put the matter to rest.
Furthermore, the Sino-Indian disengagement over Pangong-Tso in Ladakh has signaled another key point. That is, the Chinese are beginning to view all manner of tensions to their south as inimical to their own sustained economic progress and as something that hampers their ability to concentrate on their rivals farther east – i.e. the US, Japan, Taiwan and other regional powers. Thus, it is becoming increasingly clear that an across-the-board “détente” in South Asia is coming to be seen as necessary in Beijing and is slowly creeping into Chinese regional geo-strategy. Therefore, it is quite possible that the Chinese may have had at least some influence, indirect, if not direct, over Pakistani policymakers’ view of their neighborhood.
Finally, we must now come to India. On the whole, India seems to share both its neighbors’ views on regional peace and developing a reorientation toward economy. However, its problem is the government of Mr. Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Not only have they an avowed irredentist, expansionist agenda that seeks the mythical “Akhand Bharat”, they have also cast Pakistan as their preferred bogeyman. This is because Mr. Modi and the BJP seem to view everything from a tainted glass of electoral politics. Whatever gets them votes, they push. Here, imagining or manufacturing a confrontation with India’s smaller neighbor, even if only in the ideational world, helps them project their preferred image of strong, nationalist leadership.
It is important to note that Pakistan has, severally in the past, offered to restore the 2003 ceasefire. Most notably, Pakistan’s then-Prime Minister, Mr. Nawaz Sharif, had offered exactly this in 2015 from the floor of the UN General Assembly, no less. However, India had rejected the offer. That experience portends that the current understanding over ceasefire may hit a brick wall or, indeed, crash and burn at the slightest of a provocation or misunderstanding.
Finally, the BJP’s moves on Kashmir – wherein the Indians unilaterally absorbed disputed Kashmir into the Union of India – have straitjacketed India. The new problem now is that India can no longer afford to negotiate over Kashmir because one cannot negotiate over their own province/state. This leaves merely the possibility of accepting the status quo, with all sides agreeing to keep whatever they have and call it a day. This is a far cry from anything Pakistan or India have ever committed to or claimed. Yet, this is where we are now. Even in this, the broth-spoiler is once again India. More so, Mr. Modi and his BJP. Why? Because they have spent many years vowing to “take back” Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan from Pakistan and the Aksai Chin from China. It would not be easy for them to walk back their stated policy – especially, the policy that helps them get votes and keeps them in power.
Having said all that, in my view, both Pakistan and China understand this. Therefore, the moves on their part are not despite the Indian situation. They are, in fact, very much in keeping with the situation in India. Both realize that the Indians have straitjacketed themselves into a condition of perpetual hostility and confrontation. Both realize that the Indians have also reached the roof of their currently-possessed ability to push and pull things in accordance with their will. The Indians, at this time, can neither militarily take Kashmir nor Aksai Chin – and they cannot beat either of their adversaries in a game of economic chess.
Therefore, both – but especially Pakistan – have extended a “hand of peace”. The view here is to cool down the temperature and forge a “détente”. Once the “détente” takes hold, let the Indians broil in their own mess. Both will seek to pursue their own more immediate interests. The Chinese may focus on the Pacific. The Pakistanis will seek to improve their economic condition, rebuild international relationships (this time, it would seem, on the basis on economic relationships – and that, in my view, would be the real “Bajwa Doctrine”, if there is one!) and exploit Pakistan’s geography for progress. At the same time, the Pakistanis will engage more deeply in Afghanistan and strive to forge a post-American order that is friendly to Pakistani interests. Then, when the economy is improved, economic ties are more deeply established and the Afghan matter is settled, then Pakistan will return to the matter of Kashmir and India. Perhaps, at the time, things on the ground would have changed. In the meantime, the Pakistanis will want to continue down a functionalist road, working with India over whatever they can, building peace where possible and keeping the overall temperature down.
The only thing that can very significantly upset this apple cart would be the earth-shattering event of India and Pakistan agreeing to keep what they already have and call it a night. For so long as that does not happen, this is where we are heading: A temporary “détente” and living to fight another day.