Two neighbours, and dealing with them

Once praised for keeping aside the core issue to move ahead on other fronts, India-China ties can no longer be cited as a model for relations with Pakistan

May 15, 2013 02:10 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:39 pm IST

When I worked in the Prime Minister’s Office of Indira Gandhi from 1981 to 1984, she told me that she could visualise a time in the future when India and Pakistan would have normal, even friendly, relations but she did not have the same hope for relations with China because, she said, it was essentially an expansionist power. How do recent events validate her instinct and analysis?

As far as Pakistan is concerned, it is universally acknowledged that it is the military establishment which is most opposed to normalising relations with India; indeed, it appears to have a vested interest in keeping India-Pakistan relations tense. Friendly relations with India would seriously undermine the raison d’être for the inflated size of the armed forces. They would lose control over the security policy, over Afghan and Indian policy as well as control over nuclear arsenal. In other words, the military establishment would become an adjunct of the civilian government, thereby losing not only its pre-eminent position but also its self-cultivated image of being the only institution that can safeguard and save the people, in effect, from themselves. It might also lose at least a part of its economic empire. Thus, for the Pakistan military, it makes sense not to normalise relations with India.

Consensus for détente

On the other hand, going by the election manifestos of major political parties in Pakistan in the run-up to the May 11 elections, there seems to be a growing consensus among politicians for détente with India. Their manifestos not only did not contain anti-India rhetoric; they also indicated a willingness to promote peace with India. The party of incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif even went to the extent of declaring that it will open the transit route for trade between India, Afghanistan and beyond through Pakistan. Since winning the election convincingly, he has reiterated his desire to work for better relations with India, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has warmly reciprocated. Imran Khan’s party also spoke of progressive detente with India. This trend needs to be noted and welcomed in India. It suggests that the political mainstream might be ready to stand up to the military in case the latter came in the way of normalising relations with India. Whether it is able to do so will remain to be seen, but at least it has made public its intention to do so. Mr. Sharif has declared that he will be the ‘boss’ and that civilian supremacy will be asserted. If that happens, the possibility of normal relations between the two countries can certainly be entertained. Indians have a tendency to lurch from euphoria to hostility in reacting to developments in neighbouring countries. We need to wait and watch.

Does this mean that Pakistanis have finally accepted that India has no evil designs on their country and that they have nothing to fear from us? Opinion polls in Pakistan have suggested that India is not on the top of their list of most worrisome subjects. The realisation that the country is being torn from within by forces nurtured by their own agencies seems to have dawned on them. The business lobbies — and Mr. Sharif is a businessman — are certainly interested in opening trade and investment opportunities on a reciprocal basis. Pakistan has not kept the deadline of implementing the promised Most Favoured Nation status to India but one may expect this to happen in view of the declared intention of all parties to do so post-election. By and large, most people in Pakistan have reached the sensible conclusion that China, their all-weather friend, is not going to bail them out and that the best, perhaps the only, salvation for their fast-collapsing economy is to ride piggyback on India’s vast economy. The big question of how they tackle the terrorist outfits acting against India from Pakistani territory will remain.

Increasing aggression

China, by contrast, has become much more aggressive, and not just towards India. Having secured two decades of peaceful growth, China is now ready, it feels, to take on the world. Confirming this assertiveness are its actions in the South China Sea, Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and its unwillingness to discuss water issues with neighbours. China is more than willing to exploit its greatly enhanced clout in global economy to press its interests. It vigorously pursues its ambition to have the Yuan accepted as an alternative currency in international trade. It scored an important success by concluding a deal with Australia to trade directly using only the Yuan and the Australian dollar, bypassing the U.S. dollar.

As far as India-specific actions are concerned, there are any number of examples of China’s difficult attitude, as indicated by the deployment of several thousand PLA personnel in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and its intrusions across the Line of Actual Control. The most important indication of China’s true assessment of India’s importance for it is the suo moto statement of President Xi Jinping that the border problem will not be solved any time soon, making it clear that it certainly will not be resolved during his 10 years in office.

Hence, the reported statement by a Chinese official in Delhi that China would like to focus on reaching an agreement on the ‘framework’ for the settlement of the border issue needs to be noted. China will continue to make noise about the need for the two countries to cooperate in the international arena on issues such as climate change, but it remains firmly opposed to India’s aspiration for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (it would have been preferable for India not to have had any reference to this matter in the final declaration of the BRICS summit in South Africa than to have agreed to the most unpalatable formulation as finally agreed). This is what a Chinese scholar thought of India way back in 1903: “Indians have generally not cared if their territory is lost … Chinese determination is stronger than the Indian … we can foresee that Chinese accomplishments will certainly surpass those of the Indians.” Has anything changed?

The comparison with Pakistan and China brings out an interesting aspect. For many years, we in India had been asking Pakistan to follow the example of our relationship with China, in which both countries took a conscious decision to keep aside the core issue of border for the time being and concentrate on other aspects of bilateral relations that offered scope for cooperation to mutual benefit. Trade in particular was identified as offering a huge potential for expanding bilateral relations. This has happened, although the trade is heavily lopsided in China’s favour.

What is more, China is gobbling up our precious natural resources such as iron ore which we ought to be preserving for use in our own steel plants. It was the expectation at least on our part that increased economic relations would create conditions propitious for the two countries to deal seriously and pragmatically with the border problem. In this, we have been sadly mistaken.

Pakistan, on the other hand, insisted that there can be no progress on any of the bilateral issues so long as the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir was not resolved. It is premature to draw definitive conclusions, but about a year ago, Pakistan relented and agreed to move forward on trade before the core issue was settled. It agreed to grant India MFN status, apparently with the military’s consent, even in the absence of any progress on the Kashmir issue.

An interesting debate

What is the better approach? Settle the core issue first and then normalise, or normalise and then tackle the core issue? This is not just an academic question. Those arguing for the former would in effect suggest standstill in bilateral relations since the core issues are not going to be resolved, given the inflexible and politically difficult positions of all sides. Those in favour of the latter approach in effect would be reconciled to an indefinite status quo , since there would be no incentive to tackle the core issue. The debate needs to be joined.

(Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, was until recently Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Special Envoy for West Asia)

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.