India reengages Pakistan — albeit informally

(Foreign Ministers of India and Pakistan — Sushma Swaraj (R) and Shah Mehmood Qureshi (L) — met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Council’s FMs conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, May 22, 2019) 

The two-day meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) on May 21-22 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, assumes importance for the “collateral gains” it may have brought for India-Pakistan relations, marking the end of an unprecedented phase of heightened tensions that even raised war clouds despite the nuclear overhang. 

Three things can be noted at the outset. To be sure, Indian diplomacy anticipated that the SCO event would provide an opportunity for high-level interaction of some sort with Pakistan. The External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had a good enough alibi for skipping the meet against the backdrop of the political tradition in New Delhi. But instead she chose to participate. And, importantly, she even took some mithai with her — anticipating, arguably, that this would be her last diplomatic waltz. The Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi later quipped, “Swaraj complained about bitter statements and she also brought sweets so we can speak in a sweeter tone.”

Second, EAM did have an interaction with Qureshi, although she prudently kept it reserved toward the end of the event in Bishkek. The Indian version is that the two top diplomats merely exchanged pleasantries, while the Pakistani side characterised the encounter as an “informal dialogue”. 

The truth, as always in such piquant situations, is somewhere in between. It stands to reason that ice has been broken. The Pakistani newspapers have been effusive about the happening (here, here, here and here). The Lahore establishment daily Nation, which often sees things ahead of the curve, has speculated about a likely prime ministerial level meeting in London next month during the World Cup cricket matches. For once, one hopes fervently that India and Pakistan will make it to the finals. 

Third, most important, EAM met the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi at Bishkek and this was only one of the handful of “bilaterals” she took. Significantly, the meeting with Wang might have led to EAM’s informal meeting later with Qureshi. What role, if any, Wang (and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — who had a meeting with Qureshi) played to foster the India-Pakistan interaction in Bishkek we do not know. But it is crystal clear that neither EAM nor Qureshi was in the least interested in turning the SCO forum into an exercise in rhetoric against each other. And this is despite the fact that the Bishkek meet was the first SCO ministerial after Pulwama and Balakot — and notwithstanding the plenary of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) taking place in Florida, US, just three weeks away. 

Conceivably, the China-India-Pakistan triangle has become perceptibly “kinetic” from the diplomatic angle. (See my blog China hails Modi Victory. This is why.) 

The prospect of a strong government being formed in India after the poll under PM Modi’s leadership adds a crucial dimension to what is unfolding. Of course, there are strong headwinds, too. Principally, any transformation of the China-India-Pakistan triangle will be detrimental to the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy to get India on board Washington’s current policies directed against China. The early signs of unease within the US strategic community are already showing. 

The Carnegie’s American-Indian pundit Ashley Tellis wrote recently, “Pakistan’s history of separation from India makes it an ideologically and politically obdurate rival. Despite its dismal history of failed confrontations with India, Pakistan is locked into an implacable resistance even though its opposition has cost it economically, politically, and socially… thus, leaving the next government in New Delhi with only better or worse ways of managing a problem that will persist far into the future. It is almost certain that India will resuscitate the currently stalled diplomatic dialogue with Pakistan at some point after the current election, but even this process is unlikely to produce any lasting peace in the subcontinent.” 

Shorn of diplomatese, the spectre of a transformation of the China-India-Pakistan triangle haunts the US, which can, therefore, be expected to put spokes in the wheel of any Eurasian process that helps ease tensions in the subcontinent and enhances regional security and stability in South Asia within a matrix that does not ascribe any leas role for Washington. 

Unsurprisingly, Tellis also harped at length on the “strategic threats posed by Beijing to India” and to decry the utter worthlessness of Russia as a friend of India anymore. The implications are clear. The US abhors the very thought of India cogitating and coordinating with Russia and China regarding regional security within a format that excludes Washington and in directions that weaken US’ global strategies.

Tellis’ prescription for Modi is simple: ‘Bandwagon with the US because there is no hope on earth to safeguard India’s national interests on its own steam with its own limited capabilities and resources or to navigate the path ahead in the volatile regional and international environment with its own native compass programmed on independent foreign policies.’ Unfortunately, a chorus within India will dutifully echo Tellis’ sage advice. 

Most certainly, the tidings from Bishkek will not please Washington. It is a worst case scenario from the US perspective that the SCO provides the setting for the easing of tensions between India and its two most consequential neighbours China and Pakistan where they forge common positions on regional and international issues.

Paradoxically, if China advances along the present path of mediating in India-Pakistan tensions — unobtrusively through persuasive diplomacy and “soft power” while taking great care not to be intrusive or tread on the sensitivities of the two interlocutors — one main plank of the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy will unhinge sooner or later, and the scope narrows to play upon India’s anxieties or fears regarding China’s rise. 

Therefore, this is going to be a high stakes game. It has been apparent through the past 5-year period that China sees in Modi a strong-willed leader who can take difficult foreign policy decisions. Something of this is also lately rubbing on the present Pakistani leadership. Now, interestingly, EAM’s speech at Bishkek also signalled that Delhi is mindful of the need of a course correction on Afghanistan, which is a contentious issue right at the core of the China-India-Pakistan triangle today. 

The EAM said at the Bishkek meeting: “India stands committed to any process, which can help Afghanistan emerge as a united, peaceful, secure, stable, inclusive and economically vibrant nation, with guaranteed gender and human rights”. Quite obviously, this marks a significant departure from the traditional stance, which up until very recently used to insist on India’s vociferous support of an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled” process with a lead role for the Government of Afghanistan. The formulation by the EAM at Bishkek not only harmonises the Indian stance with Russia and China’s, but also enables Delhi to move to the middle ground in a non-partisan way that ought to raise the comfort level in Islamabad.