Enough of talks, anyway

When formal dialogue resumed between Pakistan and India following agreement between the foreign secretaries of the two countries at Thimpu in February this year, it raised hopes that the process would yield movement in some areas, however modest. But even these low expectations have yet to materialise.

By Dr Maleeha Lodhi

Published: Mon 27 Jun 2011, 9:22 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:50 AM

So far the only ‘achievement’ of the renewed process is that it has remained in play. This may not be inconsequential given the erratic pattern of Indo-Pakistan diplomatic engagement. But both sides need to set their sights higher than just re-state their positions and issue anodyne statements at the end of meetings. Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir and his Indian counterpart Nirupama Rao have a chance to move the process forward before the Foreign Ministers meet in Delhi.

While the tone of bilateral relations may have improved by the re-engagement of the past three months, work on substance has yet to begin. Tenor is not content. Unless the quality of relations improves the danger will remain of a relapse into tensions in what is an accident-prone relationship.

The resumption of broad based talks in March marked an important thaw in ties after a prolonged diplomatic standoff that followed Delhi’s suspension of talks in the wake of the November 2008 terrorist incident in Mumbai. An agreed calendar of meetings covering an eight-plus-one-point agenda was drawn up. Eight of these issues had previously figured in the ‘composite’ dialogue that took place between the two countries in one of the most intense phases of bilateral diplomacy in 2004 — 08.

Between March and June 2011, a full round of talks took place on Counter-terrorism (including progress on the Mumbai trial), Siachen, Sir Creek, Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project, commercial and economic cooperation and humanitarian affairs. These multilayered encounters imparted some energy to the diplomatic process. But the discussions have made little, if any, progress on any one of the agenda items, except in terms of mutual commitments to continue talking. Even where movement was possible — on trade — talks seemed bogged down.

Beyond the formal dialogue no resolution has been found to irritants of more recent vintage. Delhi did not relent on its opposition to a number of initiatives that Pakistan regards as important for its economic revival and progress. Two of these merit mention. The first is a market access deal that was approved by the European Union for Pakistan in September 2010 in the wake of the floods that struck the country. The time-bound deal under the Generalised System of Preferences needs a country-specific ‘waiver’ from the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to be operational. Since last November India has raised multiple objections to block the deal. The second issue concerns India’s opposition conveyed to the Asian Development Bank over the construction of the Daimer-Bhasha Dam for which Pakistan has been seeking international support.In the formal talks, movement was also possible on Sir Creek and Siachen, but none was made.

On these two disputes, previous progress could have become the basis for substantial forward movement, even draft agreements. Instead, Pakistani officials discerned a hardening of the Indian posture on Siachen, reflecting the Indian military’s resistance to any settlement. Discussions on Sir Creek similarly marked a missed opportunity.

This raises a number of questions. Has the resumed dialogue become more about process than substance? Will the resuscitated peace process just limp along with no real progress in improving the quality of the relationship? How long can a dialogue without decisions last without losing direction and momentum? Will a process that is not result-oriented be particularly susceptible to a reversal, even breakdown?One way to assess the engagement so far is to recall the fraught backdrop and the ground that has been covered since the two countries overcame their protracted diplomatic impasse. A few months of uninterrupted dialogue by this reckoning has helped put the process back on the rails, and to expect anything more would be unrealistic. After all the revived process has begun to stabilise ties and re-established channels of communication that can be useful if the relationship is rocked by another crisis.

This is a persuasive argument and helpful to evaluate the opening round of the revived dialogue. But the same measure cannot be applied to the dialogue down the road because its real test will be in the results it produces and not just the fact that it is carrying on. Any dialogue that is unable to produce solutions ultimately exhausts itself and runs out of steam. Process after all is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Without addressing the causes — and not just the symptoms — of long running tensions between Pakistan and India, no durable rapprochement is really possible. This is the lesson of history and the dictum of common sense.

This urges the need for a two-track approach to manage and improve bilateral relations. If one track aims at defusing or managing tensions and building confidence by deepening the process of engagement, the other track must concern itself with problem solving. The latter requires leaders on both sides to invest more political capital than they have done and show a readiness to accommodate the other’s core concerns.

At the end of the day CBMs will prove useful if they become the means to build a stable environment and galvanise the political will to resolve disputes. Ultimately, the success or failure of the resumed bilateral endeavours for peace will be determined by the mutual willingness to address the real issues that divide the two countries, rather than a diplomatic dance around them.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom

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