Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan may come face to face at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit this month. China—one of the organization’s co-founders—is keen to ease tensions between the countries and lower the risk of war on its borders. If it can broker a successful Khan-Modi meeting, an unprecedented period of stability could follow.
Modi, who was recently reelected in a landslide victory, begins his second term in a unique position. Having built his brand of Hindu nationalism around a muscular defense of national security, Modi may be in a better position than any previous Indian leader to de-escalate with Pakistan.
On Feb. 26, Modi essentially upended South Asian politics when he sent a squadron of Indian warplanes to drop four bombs near the small Pakistani town of Balakot. The move upset the uneasy equilibrium that had kept the two countries at peace for years. Given the dangers of miscalculation between the two nuclear powers in the fog of war, India and Pakistan had for many years refrained from any military engagement—until Balakot.
In the end, rather than escalating, the incident ended with both countries claiming victory at home: India, for having authorized the strikes, which satisfied Modi’s base, and Pakistan for having downed an Indian plane and then handed back the pilot who was captured. Whether a willingness to use military force is the new normal—and whether it is any more dangerous than the old normal—depends on how Modi presents himself during his second term. If he does want to make peace, he may find a more willing Pakistan than ever before.
Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, has a track record as a bridge builder with India. In 2018, he established a back channel with India that helped secure a massive reduction in cease-fire violations along the Line of Control between the two countries. Bajwa has also been instrumental in pushing for a visa-free corridor for Indian Sikh pilgrims to access a holy site in Kartarpur, Pakistan. Analysts believe that Bajwa also supported Khan’s decision to return to India Abhinandan Varthaman, the pilot who was taken prisoner after an aerial dogfight that followed India’s Balakot strike.
To top it all off, Bajwa can engage with India without fearing accusations from an increasingly bellicose military of being weak. He has heeded calls from within the rank and file to clamp down on free speech criticizing the military. And, under him, the military also backed the jailing of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and proceedings against former President Asif Ali Zardari—giving him credibility within the ranks.
When it comes to improving ties with India, Bajwa and Khan appear to have the backing of Pakistan’s most steadfast ally, China, which had previously seemed ambivalent about peace between the two countries.
New Delhi welcomed the addition of Masood Azhar, the founder of the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, to the United Nations’ terrorist sanctions list this May as the biggest proof of a change in China’s outlook. On four previous occasions, the United States, India, and other Western allies had attempted to have Azhar listed, only to have China stand in their way. Increased tensions after Balakot may have pushed all sides to make enough compromises to come to a working agreement.
China has long preached the need for Pakistan to expand trade ties with India. But under Chinese President Xi Jinping, those calls have taken on new weight as Beijing attempts its own reset with New Delhi. A summit between Xi and Modi last year cemented a friendlier outlook. And bilateral trade between India and China has grown dramatically, from less than $3 billion in 2001 to nearly $90 billion last year.
Historically, Pakistani leaders have ignored a lot of international signaling. But they usually pay attention to Beijing. Bajwa has been especially responsive, shuttling off to Beijing last September when one of Khan’s ministers publicly complained about Pakistan’s debt to China related to the Belt and Road Initiative.
Of course, just because Bajwa, Khan, and Xi are aligned doesn’t mean that Modi will be, too. After all, since Balakot didn’t escalate into all-out nuclear war, Modi may believe that such strikes could be used again to great domestic and strategic effect. Yet the downside risk of military operations will not be lost on Modi or his inner circle, either. India’s aged military hardware has been a sore point for Indian strategists for decades, and Pakistan’s ability to shoot down an Indian plane strengthens their arguments about India’s preparedness. And perhaps most importantly, as someone with a proven readiness to go to war, Modi can now sell himself domestically as having the upper hand in any negotiations with Pakistan.
Any political violence that India can plausibly link to Pakistan will not only scuttle the chance for dialogue between Khan and Modi—it will also ramp up the pressure for an even more spectacular response than Balakot. Pakistan appears to be attempting to head off any problems by cracking down on individuals associated with some key terrorist organizations, but these groups have proved resilient in the past, especially given the limitations of Pakistan’s efforts to control them.
The United States and other Western nations may also spoil any progress. After the Balakot strike, instead of the traditional finger-wagging at both countries, a host of Western powers essentially endorsed India’s action as a legitimate way to respond to what it considers to be terrorist attacks on its soldiers. Merits of their approach aside, if Western powers continue to signal unqualified support for India, they risk encouraging more such behavior.
But for now, there are reasons to be optimistic. Bajwa’s de-escalation along the Line of Control in the first half of 2018 required a partner willing and able to meet Pakistan halfway, which means that Modi had to have signed off. Despite some reservations, Modi also agreed to the Kartarpur corridor for Sikh worship. And, most of all, he tried to ease tensions with Pakistan after the return of the captured Indian pilot after Balakot.
Those hopeful for regional stability know that peaceful coexistence between Pakistan and India benefits not only those two countries, but the entire region as well. It is not common for the United States and China to want the same thing. But they do in South Asia, and they can push Modi and Khan toward cooperation. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting is a good place to start.