The last week of March saw some interesting developments regarding trade between India and Pakistan. First, the PTI-led government showed some willingness to continue bilateral trade and then quickly reneged on its initial announcement when PM Imran Khan took another round-trip that has now become a hallmark of his politics.
We need to look at the trade relationship between India and Pakistan in a broader perspective from some of the geopolitical realities across the region. There are many players who influence each other for their own immediate benefit and in doing so they are putting all prospects of peace in jeopardy. There is not just one stalemate between India and Pakistan; There are many deadlocks we need to look at before we try to solve them to improve trade relations in the subcontinent as well as from Central Asia to South Asia.
The first stalemate occurred in Afghanistan which has been a victim of a civil war that has continued for at least 40 years now. Although countries such as America, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union all played their part in the 1980s, thereafter were basically the Afghan warlords who in the 1990s created a prolonged stalemate that resulted in the takeover of the Pakistan-backed Taliban. in Kabul in 1996. The anachronistic and brutal government of the Taliban led to another invasion in 2001. For the past 20 years, an American-backed government has been in power in Kabul.
Now only the Kabul government and the Taliban can break the deadlock by reaching a power-sharing formula. Ghani’s government in Kabul considers itself to be an elected and legitimate dispensation with the right to rule in the country. The Taliban continues to target civilian and military sites, making it difficult to come to an acceptable conclusion to the parties involved. If all the players concerned are able to break the deadlock in Afghanistan, it will go a long way in improving trade relations from Central Asia to South Asia.
The second deadlock is between China and India. Relations between India and Pakistan today depend heavily on how China and India relate to one another. With India, China has a long-running dispute that the two countries cannot resolve even if they declare peace. As long as China does not have good relations with India, it seems in China’s interest that India and Pakistan also remain in conflict. A peaceful resolution to the Kashmir issue will allow India to be more focused and emerge stronger on the northern border with China. This Sino-India standoff is a major hurdle between India-Pakistan trade relations that may not return to normal unless two bigger neighbors resolve their problems.
The third stalemate in the region originated in India. The jingoistic and Hindu nationalist government of the BJP led by criminals like Modi has endangered harmony and peace both internally and externally. Of course, the longest stalemate has been on Kashmir. Rather than trying to solve it with the active involvement of the people of Kashmir, India’s neighbor and regional power, PM Modi has exacerbated the deadlock by announcing the illegal and unconstitutional annexation of Jammu and Kashmir to India. He has been an accomplice to the religious right in Indian society to garner political support.
Modi is also trying to oppress neighboring India and aspire to become a major military force on par with China. The BJP government’s new bonhomie with the US has distanced it from China. Then there is the Indian tendency to use Afghanistan as a battlefield proxy war against Pakistan by using Afghan soil against Pakistan; this disrupts regional peace and prevents bilateral and multilateral trade in the region.
Iran is the location of the fourth deadlock in the region. Presidents Muhammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani have both tried to loosen the shackles of conservatism and militarism in Iran but in vain. Iran’s pursuit of its missile and nuclear programs has extended the stalemate. Iran’s now closer ties with China make it a less favorable country for both America and India. The closer China is to Iran, the less likely it is that Iran will have good relations with America or India. To break the deadlock, Iran needs a fundamental shift in the military, political and religious policies that are so entwined there. With America and Saudi Arabia as rivals in the region, Iran can hardly afford to antagonize India either.
Finally, we come to Pakistan’s contribution to the stalemate in the region. Although Kashmir has been a problem since 1947, there has been no deadlock in trade and other relations with India. The war in 1965 damaged bilateral relations the most and resulted in breaking up of connections. Then General Ziaul Haq’s accident in Afghanistan did extend his own rule by eleven years but seriously damaged the peace in the region.
To break the deadlock, Pakistan also needs major changes in its policies, especially towards Afghanistan and India. Two words of advice for Pakistan to understand: the Taliban are on the wrong side of history as it tries to build a theocracy in the 21st century; and the people of Pakistan have suffered terribly and we cannot expect our people to continue to sacrifice their basic needs on the altar of the lofty agenda.
The author holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.
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