India and Pakistan, the two nuclear-armed giants of South Asia, each mark the 75th anniversary of their independence this week. Disputes over their shared border and the territory of Kashmir have been a recurrent source of conflict between the two countries over the course of their histories, and new geopolitical alignments, changes in conventional and nuclear military capabilities, and deep mistrust continue to forestall any normalization of ties. China’s rise and the attendant great power competition have complicated both Islamabad’s and New Delhi’s strategic calculus as they both look to balance relations with Washington and Beijing.

Members of India's Border Security Force, foreground, at the daily flag-lowering ceremony with their Pakistani counterparts, in black uniforms, at the Wagah-Attari border crossing, Sept. 19, 2019. (Rebecca Conway/The New York Times)
Members of India's Border Security Force, foreground, at the daily flag-lowering ceremony with their Pakistani counterparts, in black uniforms, at the Wagah-Attari border crossing, Sept. 19, 2019. (Rebecca Conway/The New York Times)

In this article, USIP interviews Jalil Abbas Jilani and Maleeha Lodhi, former ambassadors of Pakistan to the United States, and Nirupama Rao and Arun Singh, former ambassadors of India to the United States, to get their perspectives on the main foreign policy and security challenges facing their respective countries, options for rapprochement, and the role of the United States and other global powers in supporting peace and stability in the region.

At the 75th anniversary of independence, what do you see as the primary foreign policy and security challenges facing your country in the coming five to 10 years? 

Rao: This is a time of heavy turbulence in global politics. Power equations are not stable, the world where globalization seemed to assure a better future for billions of aspiring youth is an image receding from our rear windows, and negotiated multilateral or regional solutions for lingering geopolitical problems, and questions of war and peace, are no longer assured. South Asia is a different place today with China’s assertive military and financial clout generating challenges for India’s neighborhood policy. Our relationship with Pakistan will continue to remain fraught and weighted down by cross-border “gray zone” confrontation and militancy targeted against us. Of even more consequence is the hostile and adversarial state of India’s relations with China, where the lack of resolution of problems on the high Himalayan borders we share has created a potent cocktail of mistrust and dangerously close military confrontation.

Lodhi: Pakistan’s greatest security challenges will continue to emanate from its neighborhood — from the unsettled situation on its border with an unstable Afghanistan and from troubled relations with India. An imposing foreign policy challenge will be to navigate the growing confrontation between the United States and China, two global powers with which Pakistan has its most important bilateral relationships. 

Ties with China will remain an overriding priority for Islamabad. The strategic direction relations have taken in recent years has given this long-standing partnership added significance at a time of a fundamental change in the international balance of power brought about by China’s rise as a global power; the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is emblematic of this. 

Pakistan seeks a reset of ties with the United States, but relations will inevitably be affected by Washington’s standoff with Beijing. Islamabad wants to avoid being sucked into this big power rivalry. But this is easier said than done. So long as U.S.-China relations remain unsteady it will have a bearing on Pakistan’s effort to reconfigure ties with the Washington. Redefining Pakistan-U.S. relations will be a daunting task in the changed context of America’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan and its choice of India as its strategic partner in the region in its strategy to contain China. Aspects of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy also have security implications for Pakistan, not least because it injects Cold War dynamics into the Indian Ocean, which Islamabad has long sought to prevent becoming India’s Ocean.

Singh: The world is now moving decisively from its unipolar moment to a multipolar phase. India will have to carefully navigate its relations with the three major powers: United States, Russia and China. There is growing convergence in Indian and U.S. interests, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, and growing strength in various aspects of the bilateral relationship: trade, investment, value chain, technology, defense and diaspora. There will be difference on Russia, with which India has a legacy, a strong defense supply dependence, a productive energy partnership, and need to prevent Russia from taking anti-India positions on India-China issues. India also has to manage its relations with China, complicated by differences and confrontation on the boundary between them; China’s growing concerning presence in South Asia, the Indian Ocean and space; and growing Chinese defense and cyber capabilities. Threading the needle of these three relationships, in an era of intense geopolitical competition, will pose the primary foreign policy and security challenge to India in the coming five to 10 years. Many of the other challenges that India may face, including terrorism, will be a subset of this primary challenge.

India and Pakistan have experienced repeated hostilities over their post-independence history, but for the past year and a half, a tenuous cease-fire agreement along the Line of Control has been upheld. How could the neighbors build on this toward a greater stability in bilateral ties?

Jilani: The history of Pakistan-India relations can be characterized as one of lost opportunities. Mistrust, hostility and conflict has undermined efforts toward peace and stability. Since independence, Pakistan and India have had numerous wars, border skirmishes and military stand-offs. They also continue to have unresolved disputes, lingering irritants and a history of broken promises.

Attempts made by the two countries in the past seven decades to address disputes have not been successful due to various domestic, regional and global factors. India’s position on almost every issue regarding Pakistan has hardened ever since the emergence of India as a “strategic partner” of the United States and other Western powers. Developments since 2018, including New Delhi’s unilateral decision to repeal Articles 370 and 35A and alter Kashmir’s constitutional status, which Pakistan considers to be a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and the Simla Agreement, have further strained ties between the two countries. 

Although issues between Pakistan and India are long-standing, progress is possible. Leaders on both sides of the border need to develop a national consensus in support of the peace process and bring all stakeholders including the core constituencies, media and opposition parties on board. As in the past, the United States and United Kingdom can also play an important role in defusing tensions. 

This may appear to be a tall order but there are historical precedents and lessons the two countries can draw from. In the face of high-level tensions between 1999-2003, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India initiated a unprecedented peace process from 2003-2008, leading to a nearly decade-long cease-fire, increases in bilateral trade and the establishment of Kashmir-related confidence-building measures. The two countries also addressed their respective concerns on terrorism through a discreet and candid dialogue, and came close to a resolution on several disputed boundary points. Unfortunately, the process was disrupted due to political developments in the two countries and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. 

Several important lessons can be drawn from the substantive and result-oriented peace process followed by the two countries from 2003-2008. First, visionary leadership on both sides of the border can change the course of history and break the logjam. Second, it is imperative to show flexibility and adopt a problem-solving approach. Third, dialogue is essential. Only through regular dialogue do new ideas emerge. Negotiations should not thrust anything unacceptable on any party. Fourth, building trust is of paramount importance. The only way it can develop is through engagement at all levels including between the political leadership, public officials, businesses, media and civil society. 

If we want the next 75 years to look any different from the past, adhering to the above principles could allow both Pakistan and India to live a more peaceful and prosperous future. Prudence demands that we pick up the threads from where we left off in 2008 and find common ground to work together. Only then can lasting peace become a viable alternative to endless conflicts.

Singh: The cease-fire has held despite an absence of a public working relationship or exchanges between the two governments at the moment. There was also an effective cease-fire earlier from 2003 to 2008. However, at that time there was a dialogue process, aimed at advancing cooperation, and a reportedly productive back channel for discussing some of the contentious issues. This had been disrupted by the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack linked to official elements in Pakistan. 

One way to build on the present cease-fire would be to explore ways to advance cooperation on trade and economic issues, especially since globally, including in South Asia, there has been a significant negative impact of COVID and then the present crisis in Europe, leading to rise in energy and food process. Several South Asian countries are seeking support from the IMF. A South Asian initiative to respond to the current crisis could reinforce in popular perception of the advantages from cooperation rather than confrontation.

Lodhi: Managing difficult relations with India will continue to preoccupy Pakistan. Dialogue has been suspended for years. Trade was halted and diplomatic representation downgraded in 2019 after India’s illegal action of incorporating and bifurcating the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. The hope that back-channel communication between the two countries in 2021 would yield a thaw turned to disappointment when no headway was made on any front, beyond the re-commitment by both neighbors in February 2021 to observe a cease-fire on the Line of Control. This was an important development, however, as only two years earlier the two states were locked in a dangerous confrontation epitomized by the Balakot crisis, when Indian planes carried out bombing inside Pakistani territory. In view of the persisting deadlock, the future outlook for Pakistan-India relations is uncertain. Given the impasse on Kashmir, an uneasy and fragile state of “no war, no peace” is likely to continue.

Rao: It is important that the cease-fire agreement along the Line of Control between India and Pakistan should hold and that attempts by the latter to provoke pro-Pakistani secessionist elements in Kashmir should cease. It is difficult — indeed, impossible — to nurture any illusions of a better tomorrow in India-Pakistan relations, if such activities continue. There is little patience among the Indian public for talk of peace with Pakistan when we confront the turbulent history of the past few decades of relations, despite attempts made by successive Indian governments to build bridges with Pakistan and promote a functioning relationship with our western neighbor. The domestic consensus is for a firmness of approach in dealing with Pakistan in a non-conciliatory manner given this troubled history.

How do you assess regional stability and relations with your neighbors and other powers such as the United States, China or Russia? What is needed from outside partners to help ensure peace and stability in South Asia over the next 25 years?

Rao: I believe that the global consensus should be to support regional integration among the eight countries of South Asia, and to advocate this as a way forward for the secure and prosperous future of every country in the region. One neighbor, China, which is also a global power, and is not a South Asian country, has pursued a disruptive policy agenda in the region that has sought to challenge India (which is the crucial connector country in South Asia for any scheme of regional integration) rather than work with it as far as the pursuit of such integration is concerned. 

China’s regional ambitions do not support the realization of the potential of an integrated South Asia, especially since it has actively helped the advancement of Pakistan’s military and strategic ambitions against India. The United States and India have worked hard to cement their close and comprehensive global strategic partnership over recent years, and one factor in this equation has been the deep disquiet and concern about the aggressive assertiveness of China in the Indo-Pacific and the challenge this poses to a rules-based international order. Our relationship with Russia passed its heyday long ago, yet Russia remains a Eurasian power whose capacity to influence the regional trajectory cannot be denied. Russia policy therefore cannot be an area of neglect.

Singh: While outside partners have, at times, played a role in defusing acute tensions, or ongoing conflict, their involvement in South Asian affairs has not necessarily contributed to cooperation and stability. From the Indian perspective, Pakistan had earlier leveraged its relationship with United States, and now with China, to sustain an adversarial and negative approach to India. External powers could play a helpful role in current context if they stepped back and declared willingness to support South Asian initiatives to deepen economic linkages. However, I am not sanguine that this is likely in the current phase of intense competition between the major powers.

Lodhi: Outside powers can play a constructive diplomatic role in helping India and Pakistan reinitiate a broad-based peace process, which proceeded with some promise in the past, especially between 2004 and 2008. The frequent acknowledgement by both countries that they have much to gain from trade and connectivity in economic areas has taken a back seat to revival of tensions, the shadow of unresolved disputes and geopolitical considerations by both sides. If India and Pakistan were to settle their outstanding disputes, practical issues relating to trade and connectivity should not be difficult to resolve. The peace dividend from economic engagement would be substantial, but outside intervention may be needed to nudge them in this direction.
 

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