The Ufa meeting: An exercise in futility?
For a person unfamiliar with the ways of the subcontinent one of the most amazing aspect of daily life is the unfailing expectation that whenever the leaders of India and Pakistan meet, there is subdued hope that some breakthrough could be achieved. The recent meeting in Ufa (Russia) between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the BRCS and ECO summits was no exception, with most strategists judging it to be a foreign policy failure as it did not achieve anything monumental like the Iran deal. Only a few have noted that the meeting was fixed at a relatively short notice, and the two foreign secretaries read out in tandem a common statement to the press, a novelty in more ways than one. Though Ufa was followed by fairly serious cross-border shelling, the meeting must be seen in its proper perspective.
Some of the criticisms are worth noting as they demonstrate how entrenched certain viewpoints are, as they explain the difficult uphill terrain that must be navigated if the ties between India and Pakistan are to normalise. From the Indian side, critics have highlighted that Modi has gone ahead and met Sharif, despite the fact that Lakhvi remains out of jail on bail. To up the ante Congress spokesperson Anand Sharma criticised Modi for reopening the question of additional evidence on the Mumbai attacks when the UPA government had in fact given Pakistan a ‘complete’ dossier of Lakhvi and fellow jihadis of the LeT. It is another matter that the joint statement was more about obtaining and using voice samples, an Indian demand.
On the other side, Nawaz Sharif has been lambasted for agreeing to a joint statement that did not mention Kashmir; other Pakistani commentators have said that the Indian side should have been pinned on the mat in view of its alleged involvement in Balochistan, in terrorists acts in Pakistan, and that any structured dialogue should have followed the ‘composite’ agenda agreed to in 1997. Sharif was also pulled up for allowing himself to be treated in a ‘humiliating’ way by Modi, who did not move forward and walk towards the former while receiving him. Facing the heat, Sharif’s Advisor on National Security and Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, was forced to issue a two page statement on return, seemingly backtracking on the Ufa agreement.
Most, though not all, strategists who have written or spoken about the meeting in the media do not seem to have factored in developments in the larger subcontinent and its north-western neighbourhood. At the same time as the two prime ministers were meeting, the Afghan government and the Taliban were holding talks in Murree brokered by the Pakistanis. The two Afghan delegations reportedly agreed on a ceasefire during Ramzan. Both sides also agreed to carry on the dialogue process after Eid. Interestingly, there were Chinese and American observers also present. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has led to a sharp deterioration in the security situation, with civilian and battlefield casualties spiking. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s bold but controversial outreach to China, and then to the Pakistani army, was seen as an acknowledgement of the fact that the road to peace in Kabul ran through Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the Pakistani army. And despite the billions pumped in by the Americans, it is the Chinese who are seen in Pakistan as a reliable, all-weather friend. China has recently hosted Taliban delegations as precursor to the latter’s direct talks with the Afghan government.
The presence of Chinese and American observers in the Murree meeting demonstrated that these two countries are the two most important external stakeholders in Pakistan; that they enjoy unprecedented influence in its strategic space and that both are more or less on the same page in seeking peace and stability in the Af-Pak region. Though unsaid, a weak and unstable Afghanistan with competing areas of influence is seen as less of a problem than a unstable Pakistan. This includes its use of Jihadi forces in asymmetrical warfare against India. Even as the Pakistani army operates against jihadis in FATA, in Karachi and even in Punjab, it refuses to give up this perceived ‘strategic asset’, believing it to be its only trump card against the growing economic and political clout of India. This not only makes the Pakistani army an unreliable partner, as many across the world increasingly conclude, but is clearly unsustainable long-term plan even for China, which is interested in stabilising Pakistan and making economic growth its primary focus.
After resisting for years, China finally agreed to drop its objection to India becoming a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a grouping of Central Asian ‘stans’ (minus Turkmenistan), Russia and China. China’s price of admission was the simultaneous entry into the organisation of Pakistan. Initially focused on counter-narcotics and anti-terrorism, the SCO has now broadened into regional economic cooperation. On one hand, China with its US$ 50 billion in investments in infrastructure (pipelines, roads, railways, energy etc.) in Central Asia, its Road Belt project, new institutions like Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank & New Development Bank etc., has moved beyond the ECO. On the other hand, it sees the ECO more as an institution that facilitates greater connectivity through confidence-building. ECO provides a platform for SCO members and the region to enmesh Pakistan in a broader web of connectivity linking, among others, Central Asia to India. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor must also be seen in the same light, giving Pakistan a stake in broader regional economic growth, taking advantage of China’s need for access to the Arabian Sea bypassing Malacca, and China’s stake in stabilising Pakistan. India-China economic relations cannot be held hostage to the past or to the continued political and security differences. This relationship has to be strengthened, but this can be a challenge if Pakistan continues to slide downhill.
China, the US, members of ECO and other realise that the narrative in Pakistan has to change if the country has to stabilise and grow. India, as a responsible and aspiring power, cannot remain immune to these common misgivings, particularly being a close neighbour. By moving ahead with the agreement between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) on movement on vehicles across borders when Pakistan held up the SAARC-level agreement on this, India demonstrated that while Pakistan can be an irritant, it cannot be an obstacle. However, India cannot get away from this common responsibility to stabilising the region, which is why it initiated the meeting at Ufa. The key issues for India remain terrorism and peace on the line of control, which the joint statement reflected. The BSF-Pakistan rangers and NSAs meet are precisely targeted at this. Other relevant issues would be discussed; hopefully there would be movement on CBM like facilitating religious tourism.
The meeting at Ufa makes imminent sense but there are limitations in what can be achieved over the short-term. India as the much bigger and much more successful country cannot afford to let instability in is immediate neighbourhood, instability that could bog it down and distract attention from its goal to abolish poverty and achieve high rates of economic growth.
(The writer is a retired bureaucrat and a foreign policy expert)