Russian-Indian relations are traditionally good. The chemistry between the leaders is excellent, and members of the public are well disposed toward each other. Economic ties have long been stalling, however, and mutual suspicions have recently been creeping in over India’s relations with America, and Russia’s with China. To make the good relationship truly great, Moscow must rethink, adjust, and upgrade its approach to India. Vladimir Putin’s forthcoming visit to New Delhi could be a starting point.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin visits India next week, it will be one of just two foreign trips he has made this year, the other one being his June meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in Geneva. Putin skipped both the G20 and COP26; an expected trip to China was rescheduled due to COVID; yet the Russian leader has decided to travel to New Delhi. This step is hopefully more than mere symbolism in the traditionally warm Russo-Indian relations and not simply a signal that at a time of increasingly tense relations with the West, Russia has important friends elsewhere in the world. Still, even if Russia’s relations with India are good, in order for them to become great, a major effort is needed.
The July 2021 edition of Russia’s National Security Strategy describes relations with New Delhi as a “special privileged strategic partnership,” and discusses them in the same paragraph as Russo-Chinese ties. The personal chemistry between Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is excellent. Recently, Modi has demonstrated India’s interest in economic projects in Russia’s Far East, thus extending New Delhi’s Look East policy all the way to Vladivostok. Over Washington’s objections, India has gone ahead with the purchase of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems, due to be delivered before the end of the year. Modi is also one of only four foreign leaders to have been awarded Russia’s top decoration, the Order of St. Andrew. Ordinary Russians see India as a reliably friendly country with which their own nation has a virtually problem-free relationship. For their part, most Indians regard Russia as a proven friend that in the course of India’s seventy-five years of independence has never caused their country strategic harm.
Yet issues are piling up on many fronts, requiring both the Indian and Russian leaderships to rethink, adjust, and upgrade the relationship to make it fit for the twenty-first century environment. In global geopolitical terms, the main issue is that Moscow and New Delhi, traditional friends and longtime allies, now find themselves ever more closely linked to two rival superpowers, China and the United States. Moreover, India’s relations with China following the 2020 border clashes in the Himalayas, and Russia’s with the United States since the 2014 Ukraine crisis, can be described as confrontation. Thus, in a situation when their best friends are bonding with their worst enemies, the main task for both New Delhi and Moscow is to shield the Indo-Russian strategic partnership from the wider and increasingly adverse global context, and uphold mutual trust.
In geoeconomic terms, despite ongoing cooperation in areas ranging from nuclear energy to outer space to the Arctic, not to mention armaments development and production, the obvious weakness of the Indo-Russian relationship is its small and stagnant trade volumes. With America and China—despite the bad political relationship with the latter—India, a fast-rising economy, trades to the tune of $100 billion each, while commerce with Russia still languishes around a mere $10 billion. The reason is again plain to see: while 85 percent of India’s economy is now in private hands, Indo-Russian economic ties still rest on government-to-government agreements. After the old model of Soviet-Indian economic relations collapsed in 1991, trade volumes plummeted. The USSR used to be among India’s top three economic partners; the Russian Federation’s current rank is in the twentieth to twenty-fifth range.
Still, Russia remains strong in some important niches, above all military-technical cooperation. Since India’s first purchase of Mig-21 fighters back in 1962, arms trade has been the cornerstone of bilateral relations. Yet India’s growing desire to diversify its arms imports and, recently, its clear intention to develop and produce weapons systems itself, have led to a slump in Russia’s share of the Indian arms market. As a result, Russia’s share of that market has shrunk to just under 50 percent. There is ever stronger competition from Europe and even more so from the United States.
For all their professed pivot to Asia, the current Russian elites remain Eurocentric to the core, and have little time for India. Russia’s government-owned corporations and private business actors find it much easier and more profitable to do business with China than with India. Russian media outlets have little presence in India and do a mediocre job of explaining Indian politics and policies to their audiences. The Russian public has very limited knowledge and understanding of what is going on in India. Tourism and cultural contacts have been picking up in recent years, but the pandemic has severely limited them. An effort to revive the practice of inviting Indian students to study at Russian universities, after an initially promising start, has also suffered from COVID-related restrictions.
Ironically, India’s elites are also Western-centric, but unlike Russia’s, they are also Western-leaning, and particularly focused on the United States. Their ambition is to become part of the global elite. To them, Russia is not a priority, and interest in it is scant. The Indian media has virtually no correspondents based in Russia. To cover Russia-related issues, Indian media editors usually rely on Western—mostly American and British—reporting and analysis, which is highly critical of Russian policies. Tellingly, India’s vibrant technology sector has very few contacts with Russia and Russians.
All these problems are too big to be resolved in a single and short presidential visit. However, they must not be ignored if the Indo-Russian strategic partnership is to live up to its name in the decade ahead. The Russians need to step back and decide what it is they want from the Indian connection, what the opportunities for and obstacles to this desired state of relations are, and what must be done in order to achieve their objectives. From this perspective, three actions are of central importance for Russia as it proceeds along this path: to rethink, to adjust, and to upgrade.
Rethink means, above all, seeing India for what it is and where it is headed. Far too many in Russian elite circles still regard India as the third world country that it was during the heyday of Soviet-Indian friendship in the 1960s–1980s. Those people have clearly missed India’s stunning economic and technological success of the past three decades. As a result, Russia should not expect its large neighbor in Eurasia to act as a non-aligned inward-looking nation, keeping a low profile in international relations and behaving like a middle power. Instead, Russians should acknowledge India’s new status and self-image as a great power, its focus on rapid economic development, and its ambition to become a global economic powerhouse and a leader in modern technologies. They need to understand the fundamental reasons behind India’s growing closeness with the United States, and its increasing hostility with China.
Thus, a rethink requires a much closer study of modern India, and a deeper understanding of that vast and highly complex nation, which is rising to the level of a world power. This can be achieved by supporting Indian and South Asian studies in Russia; expanding media coverage of Indian political, economic, and diplomatic developments; and promoting scientific, educational, and cultural ties, as well as tourism and other people-to-people connections.
Adjust means factoring in all these realities in developing Russia’s own strategy toward India: something that does not currently exist. It is clear that cultivating and developing the strategic partnership should remain the overall objective of this yet-to-be-devised strategy. However, the partnership should be structured and styled as one of equals, with Moscow dropping all residual vestiges of its previously sometimes patronizing attitudes to its Indian counterparts.
On the conceptual level, Russia needs to take a second look at New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific strategy. An in-depth strategic dialogue with New Delhi on that subject could dispel Moscow’s presently negative and suspicious attitude to the strategy. The Russians need to accept that New Delhi’s ideas have different sources and objectives than Washington’s similarly titled strategy. Essentially, India’s new strategy is a logical continuation of its Look East policy. By the same token, Moscow could increase mutual trust with New Delhi by working through and patiently dispelling Indian concerns regarding Russia’s strategic ties with China and its situational cooperation with Pakistan.
These clarifying discussions could pave the way to engaging New Delhi in a strategic dialogue on Greater Eurasia, which is the strategic framework for Moscow’s approach. One might consider amplifying Russia’s traditionally continental geopolitical concept by adding a maritime element covering the seas and oceans washing Eurasia. For the purposes of a geopolitical dialogue with India, the relevant areas could include the Arctic, the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean—all the way from Murmansk to Mumbai. By the same token, India’s strategy, which so far has been couched predominantly in maritime terms, might get a continental dimension, starting with Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Iran. Creating synergies between Moscow and New Delhi’s strategies in both domains could be a tantalizing proposition.
On this basis, Moscow needs to engage more closely with New Delhi as it further fleshes out the idea of a Greater Eurasian partnership. Maintaining strategic partnerships with both India and China at bilateral and trilateral (RIC) levels is crucial for general geopolitical stability in Eurasia. Russia, which has neither the ambition nor the resources to dominate Greater Eurasia, could play a key role in maintaining Eurasian equilibrium, which requires Russo-Indo-Chinese understanding. While being realistic about its partners and their complicated relations, Russia needs to proactively facilitate efforts at better understanding between New Delhi and Beijing, and promote positive interaction among the three great powers. Such interaction is also needed for engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a key aspect of the Greater Eurasian Partnership. It is even more necessary for building up the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a continent-wide dialogue platform.
Moreover, close relations with New Delhi would help Moscow in engaging pragmatically on Eurasian/Indo-Pacific issues with Washington and Tokyo, which are linked with New Delhi through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Much as India finds Russia’s partnership with China useful for managing its own relations with Beijing, Moscow could use its close relations with New Delhi to weigh in diplomatically on the Indo-Pacific agenda. India, which is genuinely interested in an improved relationship between Russia and the United States, might be useful here. At the global level, Russia would benefit from closer interaction with India not only within the BRICS, but also at the United Nations.
On a number of regional issues, from Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East, India needs to be treated as Russia’s privileged interlocutor and partner. Sidelining New Delhi, as has occasionally happened in discussions on Afghanistan, should never happen again. New global issues, from the spread of pandemics to climate change and energy transition, open up broad new areas for Russia-India cooperation, even as they require the careful management of differences. Engaging early with each other would favor cooperative elements over competitive ones and make it possible to chart a coordinated approach to what have become vital issues for the world community.
Upgrade means elevating Russia’s relations with India to the level of its other strategic partnership: with China. This does not mean that Moscow-New Delhi ties must resemble Moscow-Beijing ones. The two relationships are very different, as is the wider context in which they operate. The idea is above all to explore and exploit economic opportunities, without which relations with India will always lag behind those with China. There have been many attempts to expand Indo-Russian economic ties, but progress in that direction has been painfully slow.
Most of these efforts have followed the well-trodden path of government-to-government contracts, which is not to be abandoned. One opportunity at hand that is truly unique is deepening military-technical cooperation. For decades, Russia has been the leading provider of weapons systems for the Indian military. For its part, India is serious in pressing ahead with the Make in India model. It also has much more to offer in terms of advanced technology, particularly in the information sphere. There have been several examples of successful Russo-Indian weapons development and production, like the BrahMos missile. Compared to other weapons producers, Russia is more flexible in engaging collaboratively with others. This is probably the way to go.
One has to be realistic. The Indian and Russian economies remain far less complementary than those of China and Russia. The Russian and Indian business communities are largely disinterested in each other’s countries, where they see few opportunities for themselves. This can only be changed by a joint effort in creative thinking. At their upcoming meeting, President Putin and Prime Minister Modi need to stimulate such an effort by ordering an in-depth study of potential areas of cooperation to be conducted in time for their next annual get-together.
From our partner RIAC
S. Jaishankar’s ‘The India Way’, Is it a new vision of foreign policy?
S. Jaishankar has had an illustrious Foreign Service career holding some of the highest and most prestigious positions such as ambassador to China and the US and as foreign secretary of India. Since 2019 he has served as India’s foreign minister. S. Jaishankar also has a Ph.D. in international relations from JNU and his academic background is reflected in this book.
His main argument is simplistic, yet the issues involved are complex. Jaishankar argues that the world is changing fundamentally, and the international environment is experiencing major shifts in power as well as processes. China is rising and western hegemony is declining. We are moving away from a unipolar system dominated by the US to a multipolar system. Globalization is waning and nationalism and polarization is on the rise (p. 29). The old order is going away but we cannot yet glimpse what the future will look like. This is the uncertain world that Dr. Jaishankar sees.
Dr. Jaishankar also argues that India too has changed, it is more capable and more assertive. The liberalization program that began in 1991 has made the Indian economy vibrant and globally competitive and it is well on track to becoming the third biggest economy in the world, after China and the US. The war of 1971 that liberated Bangladesh, the liberalization of the economy after 1991, the nuclear tests in 1998 and the nuclear understanding with the US in 2005, Jaishankar argues are landmarks in India’s strategic evolution (p. 4). So given that both India and the system have changed, Jaishankar concludes, so should India’s foreign policy.
But his prescription for India’s foreign policy, in the grand scheme of things, is the same as before – India should remain nonaligned and not join the US in its efforts to contain China. India will try to play with both sides it seems in order to exploit the superpowers and maximize its own interests (p. 9). But he fails to highlight how India can find common ground with China other than to say the two nations must resolve things diplomatically. He also seems to think that the US has infinite tolerance for India’s coyness. In his imagination the US will keep making concessions and India will keep playing hard to get.
Jaishankar has a profound contradiction in his thinking. He argues that the future will be determined by what happens between the US and China. In a way he is postulating a bipolar future to global politics. But he then claims that the world is becoming multipolar and this he claims will increase the contests for regional hegemony. The world cannot be both bipolar and multipolar at the same time.
There is also a blind spot in Jaishankar’s book. He is apparently unaware of the rise of Hindu nationalism and the demand for a Hindu state that is agitating and polarizing India’s domestic politics. The systematic marginalization and oppression of Muslim minorities at home and the growing awareness overseas of the dangers of Hindutva extremism do not exist in the world that he lives in. He misses all this even as he goes on to invoke the Mahabharata and argue how Krishna’s wisdom and the not so ethical choices during the war between Pandavas and Kauravas should be a guide for how India deals with this uncertain world – by balancing ethics with realism (p. 63). Methinks his little digression in discussing the ancient Hindu epic is more to signal his ideological predilections than to add any insights to understanding the world or India’s place in it.
One aspect of his work that I found interesting is his awareness of the importance of democracy and pluralism. He states that India’s democracy garners respect and gives India a greater opportunity to be liked and admired by other nations in the world (p. 8). Yet recently when he was asked about the decline of India’s democratic credentials, his response was very defensive, and he showed visible signs of irritation. It is possible that he realizes India is losing ground internationally but is unwilling to acknowledge that his political party is responsible for the deterioration of India’s democracy.
This is also apparent when he talks about the importance of India improving its relations with its immediate neighbors. He calls the strategy as neighborhood first approach (pp. 9-10). What he does not explain is how an Islamophobic India will maintain good relations with Muslim majority neighbors like Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan.
The book is interesting, it has its limitations and both, what is addressed and what is left out, are clearly political choices and provide insights into how New Delhi thinks about foreign policy. So, coming to the question with which we started, does India have a new foreign policy vision? The answer is no. Dr. Jaishankar is right, there is indeed an India way, but it is the same old way, and it entails remaining nonaligned with some minor attitudinal adjustments.
India’s open invitation to a nuclear Armageddon
Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane said that “India was not averse to the possible demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier , the world’s highest battleground and an old sore in India-Pakistan ties , provided the neighbour accepted the 110-km Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) that separates Indian and Pakistani positions. Acceptance of AGPL is the first step towards demilitarisation but the Pakistan side loathes doing that”. He said, ‘The Siachen situation occurred because of unilateral attempts by Pakistan to change status quo and countermeasures taken by the Indian Army’ (Not averse to demilitarisation of Siachen if Pak meets pre-condition: Army chief, Hindustan Times January 13, 2022).
Reacting to the Indian army chief’s statement, Pakistan’s former foreign secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan reminisced that the Siachen could not fructify into a written agreement because India wanted Siachen and Kashmir to be settled together. India’s approach ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ scuttled the agreement. As for Kashmir, “a simultaneous effort was made through the backchannel …in what is commonly known as the Four-Point Formula” (Siachen recollections, Dawn January 16, 2022). Riaz laments Indi’s distrust that hindered a solution.
Shyam Saran, a voice in the wilderness
Shyam Saran, in his book How India Sees the World (pp. 88-93) makes startling revelations about how this issue eluded solution at last minute. India itself created the Siachen problem. Saran reminisces, in the 1970s, US maps began to show 23000 kilometers of Siachen area under Pakistan’s control. Thereupon, Indian forces were sent to occupy the glacier in a pre-emptive strike, named Operation Meghdoot. Pakistani attempts to dislodge them did not succeed. But they did manage to occupy and fortify the lower reaches’.
He recalls how Siachen Glacier and Sir Creek agreements could not fructify for lack of political will or foot dragging. He says ‘NN Vohra, who was the defence secretary at the time, confirmed in a newspaper interview that an agreement on Siachen had been reached. At the last moment, however, a political decision was taken by the Narasimha Rao government to defer its signing to the next round of talks scheduled for January the following year. But, this did not happen…My defence of the deal became a voice in the wilderness’.
Saran says, `Kautliyan template would say the options for India are sandhi, conciliation; asana, neutrality; and yana, victory through war. One could add dana, buying allegiance through gifts; and bheda, sowing discord. The option of yana, of course would be the last in today’s world’ (p. 64, ibid.).
India’s current first option
It appears that Kautliya’s last-advised option,yana, as visualised by Shyam Saran, is India’s first option nowadays. Kautlya also talks about koota yuddha (no holds barred warfare), and maya yuddha (war by tricks) that India is engaged in.
By unilaterally declaring the disputed Jammu and Kashmir its territory does not solve the Kashmir problem. This step reflects that India has embarked upon the policy “might is right”. In Kotliyan parlance it would be “matsy nyaya, or mach nyaya”, that is big fish eats the small one. What if China also annexes disputed borders with India? India annexed Kashmir presuming that Pakistan is not currently in a position to respond militarily, nor could it agitate the matter at international forums for fear of US ennui.
India’s annexation smacks of acceptance of quasi-Dixon Plan, barring mention of plebiscite and division of Jammu. . Dixon proposed: Ladakh should be awarded to India. Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (including Gilgit and Baltistan) should remain with Pakistan. Whole Kashmir valley should have a plebiscite with no option to independence. Jammu should be divided on religious basis. The river Chmab should be the dividing line. Northern Jammu (Muslims dominated) should go to Pakistan and Hindu majority parts of Jammu to remain with India.
In short Muslim areas should have gone with Pakistan and Hindu-Buddhist majority areas should have remained with India.
India’s annexation has no legal sanctity. But, it could have bbeen sanctified in a mutually agreed Kashmir solution.
India portrays the freedom movement in Kashmir as `terrorism’. What about India’s terrorism in neighbouring countries?
The world is listless to accounts of former diplomats and RAW officers about executing insurgencies in neighbouring countries. B. Raman, in his book The Kaoboys of R&AW: Down Memory Lane makes no bones about India’s involvement up to the level of prime minister in Bangladesh’s insurgency.
Will the world take notice of confessions by Indi’s former intelligence officers and diplomats?B. Raman reminds `Indian parliament passed resolution on March 31, 1971 to support insurgency. Indira Gandhi had then confided with Kao that in case Mujib was prevented from ruling Pakistan, she would liberate East Pakistan from the clutches of the military junta. Kao, through one RAW agent, hijacked a Fokker Friendship, the Ganga, of Indian Airlines hijacked from Srinagar to Lahore.
India’s ambassador Bharath Raj Muthu Kumar, with the consent of then foreign minister Jaswant Singh, `coordinated military and medical assistance that India was secretly giving to Massoud and his forces’… `helicopters, uniforms, ordnance, mortars, small armaments, refurbished Kalashnikovs seized in Kashmir, combat and winter clothes, packaged food, medicines, and funds through his brother in London, Wali Massoud’, delivered circuitously with the help of other countries who helped this outreach’. When New Delhi queried about the benefit of costly support to Northern Alliance chief Massoud, Kumar explained, “He is battling someone we should be battling. When Massoud fights the Taliban, he fights Pakistan.”
Death of back-channel
In his memoirs In the line of fire (pp.302-303), president Musharraf had proposed a personal solution of the Kashmir issue. This solution, in essence, envisioned self-rule in demilitarised regions of Kashmir under a joint-management mechanism. The solution pre-supposed* reciprocal flexibility.
Death of dialogue and diplomacy
Riaz warns of “incalculable” risks as the result of abrogation of Kashmir statehood (Aug 5, 2019). Both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. In the absence of a dialogue on outstanding issues, war, perhaps a nuclear one, comes up as the only option.
Sans sincerity, the only Kashmir solution is a nuclear Armageddon. Or, perhaps divine intervention.
Major Challenges for Pakistan in 2022
Pakistan has been facing sever challenges since 1980s, after the former USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. The history is full of challenges, but, being a most resilient nation, Pakistan has faced some of them bravely and overcome successfully. Yet, few are rather too big for Pakistan and still struggling to overcome in the near future.
Some of the challenges are domestic or internal, which can be addressed conveniently. But, some of them are part of geopolitics and rather beyond control of Pakistan itself. Such challenges need to pay more attention and need to be smarter and address them wisely.
Few key areas will be the main focus of Pakistan in the year ahead. Relations with China and the US while navigating the Sino-US confrontation, dealing with Afghanistan’s uncertainties, managing the adversarial relationship with India and balancing ties between strategic ally Saudi Arabia and neighbor Iran.
Pakistan has to pursue its diplomatic goals in an unsettled global and regional environment marked by several key features. They include rising East-West tensions, increasing preoccupation of big powers with domestic challenges, ongoing trade and technology wars overlying the strategic competition between China and the US, a fraying rules-based international order and attempts by regional and other powers to reshape the rules of the game in their neighborhood.
Understanding the dynamics of an unpredictable world is important especially as unilateral actions by big powers and populist leaders, which mark their foreign policy, have implications for Pakistan’s diplomacy. In evolving its foreign policy strategy Pakistan has to match its goals to its diplomatic resources and capital. No strategy is effective unless ends and means are aligned.
Pakistan’s relations with China will remain its overriding priority. While a solid economic dimension has been added to long-standing strategic ties, it needs sustained high-level engagement and consultation to keep relations on a positive trajectory. CPEC is on track, timely and smoothly progress is crucial to reinforce Beijing’s interest in strengthening Pakistan, economically and strategically. Close coordination with Beijing on key issues remains important.
Pakistan wants to improve ties with the US. But relations will inevitably be affected by Washington’s ongoing confrontation with Beijing, which American officials declare has an adversarial dimension while China attributes a cold war mindset to the US. Islamabad seeks to avoid being sucked into this big power rivalry. But this is easier said than done. So long as US-China relations remain unsteady it will have a direct bearing on Pakistan’s effort to reset ties with the US especially as containing China is a top American priority. Pakistan desires to keep good relations with the US, but, not at the cost of China. In past, Pakistan was keeping excellent relations with US, while simultaneously very close with China. When the US imposed economic blockade against China and launched anti-communism drive during the cold war, Pakistan was close ally with the US and yet, keeping excellent relations with China. Pakistan played vital role in bring China and the US to establish diplomatic relations in 1970s. Yet, Pakistan possesses the capability to narrow down the hostility between China and the US.
Pakistan was close ally with the US during cold war, anti-communism threat, war against USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1980s, and war on terror, etc. Pakistan might be a small country, but, possesses strategic importance. As long as, the US was cooperating with Pakistan, Pakistan looked after the US interest in the whole region. In fact, Pakistan ensured that the US has achieved its all strategic goals in the region. Since, the US kept distance from Pakistan, is facing failure after another failure consecutively. The importance of Pakistan is well recognized by the deep state in the US.
US thinks that withdrawal from Afghanistan has diminished Pakistan’s importance for now. For almost two decades Afghanistan was the principal basis for engagement in their frequently turbulent ties, marked by both cooperation and mistrust. As Pakistan tries to turn a new page with the US the challenge is to find a new basis for a relationship largely shorn of substantive bilateral content. Islamabad’s desire to expand trade ties is in any case contingent on building a stronger export base.
Complicating this is Washington’s growing strategic and economic relations with India, its partner of choice in the region in its strategy to project India as a counterweight to China. The implications for Pakistan of US-India entente are more than evident from Washington turning a blind eye to the grim situation in occupied Kashmir and its strengthening of India’s military and strategic capabilities. Closer US-India ties will intensify the strategic imbalance in the region magnifying Pakistan’s security challenge.
Multiple dimensions of Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan will preoccupy Islamabad, which spent much of 2021 engaged with tumultuous developments there. While Pakistan will continue to help Afghanistan avert a humanitarian and economic collapse it should not underestimate the problems that may arise with an erstwhile ally. For one, the TTP continues to be based in Afghanistan and conduct attacks from there. The border fencing issue is another source of unsettled discord. Careful calibration of ties will be needed — assisting Afghanistan but avoiding overstretch, and acknowledging that the interests of the Taliban and Pakistan are far from identical. Moreover, in efforts to mobilize international help for Afghanistan, Islamabad must not exhaust its diplomatic capital, which is finite and Pakistan has other foreign policy goals to pursue.
Managing relations with India will be a difficult challenge especially as the Modi government is continuing its repressive policy in occupied Kashmir and pressing ahead with demographic changes there, rejecting Pakistan’s protests. The hope in establishment circles that last year’s backchannel between the two countries would yield a thaw or even rapprochement, turned to disappointment when no headway was made on any front beyond the re-commitment by both neighbors to observe a ceasefire on the Line of Control.
Working level diplomatic engagement will continue on practical issues such as release of civilian prisoners. But prospects of formal dialogue resuming are slim in view of Delhi’s refusal to discuss Kashmir. This is unlikely to change unless Islamabad raises the diplomatic costs for Delhi of its intransigent policy. Islamabad’s focus on Afghanistan last year meant its diplomatic campaign on Kashmir sagged and was limited to issuing tough statements. Unless Islamabad renews and sustains its international efforts with commitment and imagination, India will feel no pressure on an issue that remains among Pakistan’s core foreign policy goals.
With normalization of ties a remote possibility, quiet diplomacy by the two countries is expected to focus on managing tensions to prevent them from spinning out of control. Given the impasse on Kashmir, an uneasy state of no war, no peace is likely to continue warranting Pakistan’s sustained attention.
In balancing ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan should consider how to leverage possible easing of tensions between the long-standing rivals — of which there are some tentative signs. With Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman keen to use economic power to expand his country’s diplomatic clout by making strategic overseas investments, Pakistan should use its political ties with Riyadh to attract Saudi investment through a coherent strategy. Relations with Iran too should be strengthened with close consultation on regional issues especially Afghanistan. The recent barter agreement is a step in the right direction.
In an increasingly multipolar world, Pakistan also needs to raise its diplomatic efforts by vigorous outreach to other key countries and actors beyond governments to secure its national interests and goals.
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