The announcement by India and Pakistan of “strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing” along the Line of Control is a welcome step. Combined with the de-escalation on the LAC with China, it provides a sense of relief. In the case of India and Pakistan, the protracted history of the conflict, punctuated by fleeting moments of hope that are frittered away, always imposes a caution on reading too much into developments. With China, there is still a tense standoff.
It is also the case in international relations that intentions, doctrines and capabilities can be subverted by a conjunction of events. So it is premature to conclude what all this will amount to in the long term. But if all three powers, China, Pakistan and India, can draw the appropriate lessons in humility, there is hope for regional politics to turn over a new leaf.
In the case of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has immense political capital to make bold foreign policy moves. Many of these, including the strike on Balakot, were milked for domestic political use. They were also an attempt to signal a change in status quo. But two years later, a few things have become palpably clear to India. First, the belligerent use of foreign policy in domestic politics has unintended effects on your international standing. In 2019, the official rhetoric was promising India retaking PoK and putting more military pressure on Pakistan. In contrast, the discourse on foreign policy since the Chinese pressure on the LAC has been one of marked sobriety scaling back all expectations of a flippant militarism.
Second, the standoff with China has brought home some stark realities. We can speculate on Chinese motives. It is unlikely that our moves with Pakistan are a result of some package deal with China. But there is no denying that the LAC standoff considerably released the pressure on Pakistan. It cut out all of India’s loose talk on cross-border adventurism. China may have not particularly cared about Article 370; it did care about casual signalling that India might want to alter the status quo on borders with Pakistan. We were reminded that the LAC and LoC can be linked; that the zone around Kashmir was a trilateral and not a bilateral contest, and that India will need significant resources to deal with China. The fact of the matter is that status quo ante has not been restored on the LAC with China, and costs can be imposed on India.
And there is a seemingly unrelated matter of the CAA. Again, no one is against granting citizenship to minority refugees from neighbouring states. But the belligerent rhetoric of evicting Bangladeshis has been starkly checkmated by the need to placate Bangladesh, which is vital to our strategic interests. The chest-thumping bravado of 2019 has been replaced by the sober realities of international power politics.
But equally, there are humbling lessons for Pakistan as well. India now has enough weight in the international system that any attempts to internationalise Kashmir are a non-starter. Second, even Modi’s critics will have to acknowledge that the revocation of Article 370 did not unleash the kinds of fissures and cycle of violence within the Valley that Pakistan might have been hoping to exploit. There are important questions about Indian democracy, and the rights of Kashmiris. But Pakistan can hardly show a candle on these issues. Pakistan’s infrastructure of terrorism has been a net liability to Pakistan itself, and its vulnerability in FATF is a constant reminder of that fact.
But we are at a moment in international politics where so long as India’s moves are within international understandings, it will have free rein to work out whatever political arrangements it wishes. And there is the perennial question of whether Pakistan can realise its full economic potential if it remains so thoroughly dependent on the coat tails of one or the other super power. In fact, the pandemic is a great opportunity for Pakistan to recognise that opening up to the South Asian region at large buys it more room for manoeuvre in the long term than acting on the coattails of China.
It might seem that China is the victor in all this. It signalled how it can ratchet up the pressure on India. But while India may not have, in a literal sense, restored the status quo ante on the LAC, the fact of the matter is that it has stood up with enough firmness to send the signal that it will not be a pushover. India’s economic measures may have been nothing but a pin prick to China for the moment. But India signalled a resolve that Chinese military and economic hegemony can be resisted. China cannot wish away considerable Indian power. In fact, by concentrating India’s mind on the China challenge, it may have unwittingly done India a favour.
So this moment can be a constructive one if everyone understands the one lesson of this conjuncture in world politics: There are diminishing returns to belligerence. Three things can derail this moment of de-escalation. The first question is: How much does the Pakistani deep state buy into this de-escalation? The second is that there is always the risk that some fringe group will try to test the waters by precipitating an incident. Are the diplomatic channels now robust enough to withstand such a possible test? Third, Chinese intentions still remain relatively opaque and the deep currents of distrust that authoritarian regimes like Xi Jinping’s generate will not be easy to overcome.
With Pakistan, India should seize the moment and build on the de-escalation. The pandemic offers an opportunity for greater economic cooperation. For the long term momentum to be sustained, political establishments of both countries will have to think of what is a win-win political narrative they can legitimately offer their citizens. The challenge has always been that the one plausible candidate — making the de facto realities the de jure settlement — has always been seen as a loss in Pakistan. Nationalism is a perennial derailing ideological force in all three countries. But the one thing we have also learnt is nationalism is protean in character: The ability of regimes to spin nationalism to convert even defeats into victories should never be underestimated. It requires some creative organised hypocrisy.
The truth of this moment is that the world will not run according to a Modi doctrine, a Bajwa doctrine or a Xi doctrine. The region will be better off with a humility that tries to align them, rather than a hubris that exults in unilateral triumphalism.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 2, 2021 under the title ‘Trilateeral humility’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express