BMI View: The leaders of India and Pakistan met face-to-face on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on September 29, demonstrating that relations between the two nuclear-armed powers remain cordial despite rising tensions in recent weeks. In this article, we briefly discuss three key factors which are likely to be of significance to the trajectory of bilateral relations.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met his recently-elected Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on September 29, showing that relations between both nuclear-armed powers remain cordial despite a rise in tensions in recent weeks. A series of fatal skirmishes along the Line of Control (LoC), which is the heavily militarized de facto border between the Indian and Pakistani-controlled parts of the contested Jammu and Kashmir states, have plagued relations this year. According to anecdotal reports, eight soldiers from both sides have been killed in less than two months in the area, with the year's toll already at 44 security forces, up from the 17 recorded for all of last year. In this article, we briefly discuss three key factors, which are likely to shape the trajectory of India-Pakistan relations over the medium term.
LoC Issue Still On The Table: In their first face-to-face meeting in New York, which was encouragingly described as 'useful' and 'positive' by officials from both sides, the two leaders verbally agreed to restore the cross-border ceasefire, although no specific agreements were reached. The existing ceasefire agreement was concluded in 2003 under the leadership of then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. While we are likely to see a decline in border clashes following the recent discussions, or, at the very least, less heated rhetoric and more commitments to improving coordination from both sides when clashes take place, it is important to note that a significant proportion of these episodes along the LoC are not directly attributable to either army. Indeed, militant activity (largely stemming from the Pakistani side of the border) is at times to blame for such instigation of armed conflict. Looking further into the future, the withdrawal of the majority of NATO forces from Afghanistan by 2015 may result in a resurgence of militant activity in Pakistan's western border towards the east. Crucially, India has set peace along the LoC as a precondition for improving ties.
Domestic Transitions To Prove Critical: With Singh's Indian National Congress (INC)-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) facing a general election within the next nine months, the pressure will remain on New Delhi to adopt a hawkish stance towards Islamabad, as domestic nationalist sentiment is only likely to rise as the nationwide polls loom. This partly explains the duality of Singh's posture, which was clearly evident in New York. The Indian premier articulated to the UN General Assembly that 'the epicentre of terrorism...is located in our neighbourhood in Pakistan' on one day, and he successfully held locally-unpopular discussions with the Pakistani leadership the next. Meanwhile, India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has certainly taken political advantage of the recent border skirmishes to pile even more pressure on the Singh government.
Although election-related pressure is not a factor for the Sharif administration in Pakistan, a different but equally critical transition will soon take place in the country, which could have massive ramifications for the fate of cross-border relations and South Asia's political stability at large. General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the current Chief of Army Staff, is expected to step down in November 2013, with Sharif facing the difficult task of choosing the general's successor. Pakistani security and foreign policies have traditionally been the domain of the country's powerful military establishment. Hence, whoever replaces Kayani is likely to have a great deal of influence on the conduct of relations with India. This looming transition is further complicated by the fact that Sharif has had a difficult relationship with the army after his government was ousted in a coup in 1999 by then-Chief of Army Staff Pervez Musharraf. Signalling his intent to take greater civilian control of the nation's international affairs, we note that Sharif has named himself both the Minister of Defence and Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Struggle Over Afghanistan's Future: As NATO continues with the withdrawal of International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) from Afghanistan by the end of next year, the interests of regional powers such as Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan, and India on the future of the post-2014 political arrangements in the country is expected to grow. Indeed, the geopolitical interests of India and Pakistan with regard to Afghanistan's April 2014 presidential election and the post-withdrawal set-up in Afghanistan look set to be a major source of disagreement. Islamabad has a strong interest in influencing the future political leadership in Kabul to guard against being encircled by a potentially New Delhi-friendly Afghan government, and thus maintaining strategic depth in the west. Meanwhile, India has a strong interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not once again become a safe haven for militants who may pose a threat to Indian national security. Overall, the actions both powers are likely to take in these endeavours may cause tensions. Already, both sides are making major efforts to shape post-war Afghanistan - India via military and economic cooperation (i.e. a signed strategic partnership agreement and critical investments), and Pakistan via political means (i.e. aiding in peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban).