COMMENTARY
 
The initiative is in Pakistan’s hands
The Nation
March 4 , 1997
Never before in recent years was Pakistan in a better position to negotiate its outstanding disputes with India and take other steps for regional assertion as it is now. With a strong political regime, Pakistan is best positioned to take bold initiatives for resolving its outstanding disputes with India.

That it is already doing this is good. Because of its precarious coalition government, India may dither on Pakistan’s initiatives. Naturally, weak regimes lack the necessary political will. But, even if India does not respond positively, Pakistan will be able to score a point before the international community, simply for being a nation that takes bold initiatives.

The courageous foreign policy initiatives already taken by prime minister Nawaz Sharif are confined primarily to India-Pakistan relationship. In his last week’s letter to Indian prime minister Deve Gowda, Nawaz offered the resumption of foreign secretary-level talks between the two countries, which are to include Kashmir as well.

Responding positively to Sharif’s offer, I. K. Gujral, the Indian minister for external affairs, in his letter to foreign minister Gohar Ayub, said India was willing to resume these talks in March. Then, on the same day, the Foreign Office spokesman expressed Pakistan’s readiness to discuss with India demilitarization of the Siachen Glacier, if any such proposal was made by India officially. Last month, an Indian newspaper, quoting official sources, had reported that India was considering to negotiate with Pakistan the withdrawal of its troops from Siachen.

It was in January 1994 that the foreign secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan were last held. These could not resume as the two countries differed on their basic agenda. Pakistan’s was a top-down approach: that the two sides should first sort out Kashmir, the core issue souring their relations, and only then move forward to discuss anything else. India, on the contrary, stressed the bottoms-up approach, meaning that the beginning to normalize relations between the two countries should be made from settling the smaller unresolved issues of their relationship, not from the core of Kashmir.

In fact, on Kashmir, India has always backtracked. Sometimes its diplomats argue that Kashmir can come up for discussion at a later stage of the talks, after the rest of the issues are settled. But, mostly, they altogether dismiss the possibility of discussing Kashmir, taking the wrong plea that it was no more a dispute, despite knowing that, in Simla, they had agreed to resolve Kashmir bilaterally with Pakistan, and that the very existence of UN resolutions on Kashmir makes it a disputed matter.

Now there are reports that India is ready to discuss Kashmir in the proposed Foreign Secretary level talks. Earlier last month as well, in his letter of felicitations to Nawaz, the Indian prime minister had offered to “have wide-ranging and comprehensive talks on all issues of mutual concern” with the new government of Pakistan. Even though this offer did not directly refer to Kashmir, the mere mentioning of the words “wide-ranging and comprehensive” gave Pakistan a diplomatic edge, an opportunity that it could easily exploit if India once again backtracked on Kashmir.

If the foreign secretary-level talks make progress, that may be followed by prime minister-level parleys. And, in the process, some credible achievement on the outstanding issues of India-Pakistan relations, including Kashmir and Siachen, is possible. Therefore, whether the normalization process falls apart due to Indian intransigence or it goes on well due to existence of the necessary spirit in Islamabad and New Delhi, Pakistan will never be on the losing side.

If India dithers, and it may because of its currently weak government setup, then it will not be Pakistan whom the world powers will consider responsible for keeping the climate of South Asia hostile even after the end of the Cold War. The blame, which today falls somewhat equally on both countries, will shift exclusively to India. Then, even the Chinese would think twice before urging Pakistan to “shelve Kashmir for the sake of larger interests of the region,” as president Jiang Zemin did in his recent visit to Islamabad.

In case the Indo-Pak normalization process makes credible progress, the benefits for Pakistan will be many. Over one billion US dollars of illegal Indian imports that Pakistan gets today will be legalized once Pakistan grants the Most Favoured Nation status to India. The people of the two countries, as Nawaz himself has stated, will be able to buy each other’s products, which are far cheaper than any other foreign products.

The resolution of Kashmir, Siachen and other disputes means a hugely reduced spending on armaments and a massively increased expenditure on social and economic security. The liberalization or elimination of visa restrictions means frequent cultural exchange between the two nations, which will help remove their mutual misgivings and create a climate free of feelings of suspicion and mistrust.

Pakistan’s need to normalize its relations with India also arises from another factor, which is its increasing isolation from the very region in which it is situated. Its outright backing of Taliban in Afghanistan annoyed Iran, Russia, Central Asian states and, apparently, even China. For security as well as economic reasons, Iran has moved closer to India. For strategic and economic reasons, China has normalized its relations with India.

Both Iran and China do not support Pakistan on Kashmir the way they used to in Cold War days. Now China even wants Pakistan to “shelve Kashmir”. Any progress in Indo-Pak normalization progress will be welcomed not only by the Chinese but also, and strongly, by the Iranians, since their over one billion dollars gas pipeline agreement with India remains stalled due to the absence of this process between India and Pakistan.