Later this month, an Indian delegation will travel to Pakistan for talks under the aegis of the Permanent Indus Commission. This commission was set up following the Indus Waters Treaty (1960), signed by India and Pakistan with the cooperation of the World Bank. Some have interpreted the Indian government’s decision to agree to the meeting of the commission as a softening of its approach on the Indus waters in particular and Pakistan in general. They have already started reading it as a “foreign policy shift” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Is such breathtaking analysis warranted? That the meeting of the commission is taking place is welcome news. Yet, the fact is differences on the functioning of the treaty continue. Specifically, Pakistan’s veto on allowing India to build water projects that India says are within the ambit of the treaty continues to rankle in New Delhi. The decision to go ahead with the talks does not change that.
Of course, neither does this mean precipitous action is necessary. Even if India were to ignore those Pakistani objections and go ahead with the projects, these would take years to build. As such, one expects this story is far from over. Since India’s Pakistan policy is now inextricably linked to its China policy, one also expects India will wait for what Beijing does or doesn’t do in the coming months before making its moves vis-à-vis Islamabad.
What signals the Chinese leadership sends — on the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group membership application and on United Nations sanctions against Masood Azhar — will be indicative of whether it has in any way re-thought its approach to India, even if tactically and in the short run. Given this, India has to await the consequences of the foreign secretary’s recent visit to China to see if Beijing gives New Delhi that much more space, if it gives any space at all. That will inevitably influence the India-Pakistan dynamic.
Either way, room for a new India-Pakistan dialogue would appear to be fairly limited. Pakistan has a relatively new Army chief. He succeeds a popular and hardline predecessor who was tough on India and who is still an active presence in Pakistani power circles. The new general cannot be seen to be walking away from his predecessor’s positions, even if he would want to, and specially not on India policy.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has taken advantage of the transition in the Army to enhance his relative strength. He has chosen a politically lightweight candidate as Pakistan’s foreign secretary — Tehmina Janjua, the first woman to be appointed to the post. He has managed to bypass the Army’s favoured man, Abdul Basit, the current high commissioner to India. While an accomplished diplomat, Ms Janjua has spent much of her career in multilateral institutions and has not overseen relations with or served as ambassador in major countries that Pakistan deals with.
Notwithstanding this tactical advantage, Prime Minister Sharif is focused much more on domestic politics than foreign policy innovation or outreach to India. He will be seeking a fresh term in the general election in the summer of 2018, just over a year for now. India too will be in election mode by then, with a new government due to take office in May 2019. Neither country will allow its Prime Minister the political capital for a recalibrated move towards the neighbour. Any such endeavour, if it comes at all, will be deferred till after the electoral furies are spent. Even then it will boil down to what can realistically be achieved — but that is a matter for a future date.
The year 2017 is going to be one of wait-and-watch on the India-Pakistan front. For India, there are three evolving and not entirely predictable factors that will shape its assessment of Pakistan. First, President Donald Trump’s views on the future of America’s Afghan policy and exactly where and how he is going to take a potential trade war with China — with its economic and political disruptions — remains imponderable. If Mr Trump’s actions are in keeping with his campaign’s rhetorical extremes, then how will the Chinese respond in, among other geographies, South Asia: with renewed adventurism or a tactical pause?
Second, the domestic security situation in Pakistan is undergoing another shift. The arrival of an inchoate Islamic State (IS) and its appeal to breakaway elements of the Tehreek-e-Taliban as well as promotion of a new Islamist and Sunni supremacist group, the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, is pregnant with possibilities. The immediate challenge is to the Pakistani state and also, through the IS and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar strongholds on the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier, to China. Here, the IS has threatened to ignite the Uyghur movement in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang, or East Turkestan to give it one of its traditional names, has been under Chinese occupation since 1949. It has both peaceful and violent Uyghur Muslim separatists but China has been dextrous in isolating it from regional Islamist currents by leaning on Pakistan and, in the pre-9/11 period, even making contact with the Taliban dictatorship in Afghanistan. The arrival of IS and IS-like tendencies — which are not amenable to Pakistani state direction — poses an unprecedented risk to China, and of course to Pakistan too.
Third, somewhat linked to the factors above is the ability of the Chinese to spare resources for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, many of the individual projects of which do not seem to be commercially viable. In parallel, Pakistani disaffection with the terms of the CPEC is growing. The murmurs are manageable but not altogether absent. What happens if they conflate with the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar-type thinking and activism in any meaningful way?...