For some it was a “Nixon to China” moment. There were similarities also with Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem that marked the beginning of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif boldly invited his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, to drop in and Modi stopped over in Lahore on Christmas Day on the way back to Delhi from Kabul. As gestures go, it was as clear a statement as any by both leaders that they are committed to overcoming the burden of the past and building a better future for India-Pakistan relations.
But while dramatic gestures are an integral part of international relations and diplomacy, good ties between nations with an adversarial past are not made of dramatic gestures alone. Richard Nixon’s China trip was preceded by and followed up with several rounds of meticulous negotiations. The US realised it could not ignore a nation of one billion people forever. American corporations salivated at the prospect of access to a new market comprising almost a fifth of the world’s population. On the Chinese side, Mao and Zhou Enlai persuaded their colleagues that China needed peace with the US to deal with threats from the Soviet Union. Later, Deng Xiaoping’s “Four Modernisations” concept transformed the Chinese Communist Party. Deng argued successfully that China needed to modernise, catch up with the world before thinking of itself as a global power.
The US-China entente paved the way for China’s peaceful rise and, some would argue, the demise of the Soviet Union. But it also left the Communist Party entrenched in power, albeit at the head of a capitalist economy. Both China and the US benefited, though China may have profited more. Nixon went to China in 1972, paving the way for 43 years of cooperation between two countries that had been adversaries until then. Although the US stopped recognising the Republic of China government in Taiwan, it did not abandon Taiwan’s security. China went on to build its own economic ties with Taiwan under the “One Country, Two Systems” slogan.
Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem did not result in a similarly enduring peace. He secured the return of the Sinai Peninsula from Israel and became the first Arab leader to establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Egypt and Israel are still at peace but the hoped-for broader Arab-Israeli normalisation has not materialised. Both Sadat and his Israeli partner in the peace talks, Yitzhak Rabin, were assassinated by extremists. All Arabs have not accepted the right of Israel to exist, a Palestinian state has not emerged, neither Israeli occupation nor terror have ended.
What does the success of the “Nixon to China” initiative foretell about the “Modi to Lahore” foray, especially when seen in contrast to the miscarriage of the “Sadat in Jerusalem” undertaking? The US-China rapprochement had broad support in both countries, while the pockets of hatred in the Middle East were just too strong to fashion an effective compromise. Sadat will always be admired for his courage and vision but that vision is taking much longer to materialise.
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In the case of India and Pakistan, Sharif and Modi definitely seem to have the desire to normalise relations. But there is considerable potential for spoilers on both sides to ensure that nothing substantive moves forward. The two PMs can ignore politically weak opponents trying to play to the gallery at home. On the Pakistani side, all major political parties have welcomed Modi’s trip, though that has not been the case in India. So far, it seems that the Pakistan military too is on board with Sharif’s efforts to resume dialogue through foreign secretary-level talks.
But will Sharif be able to shut down all jihadi groups in Pakistan, including India-specific groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad? What will Modi and Sharif be able to offer those in Pakistan who believe there should be no normalisation of ties until the issue of J&K is resolved? India’s final offer on Kashmir — an adjustment along the LoC in which both sides largely keep what they have — has been on the table since 1963. It has not been acceptable to Pakistan. Militancy is seen by hardliners in Pakistan as the only way to keep the Kashmir issue alive, precluding a total shutdown of all jihadis.
Then there are the votaries of Hindutva who cannot stop talking of “Akhand Bharat” and Pakistan’s Islamists who think the Prophet has prophesied Ghazwa-e-Hind — a great battle for Islamisation of India. BJP general secretary Ram Madhav is the latest ideologue to speak out of turn about “Akhand Bharat”, giving fodder to Pakistan’s “Ghazwa-e-Hind” extremists who deem India an eternal enemy of Pakistan. That nuclear weapons should change simple-minded ideological equations does not occur to either.
Sharif’s foreign affairs advisor, Sartaj Aziz, probably had these factors in mind when he said after the Modi stopover in Lahore that he did not expect much from the initial phase of Pakistan-India talks. Then what, if anything, might be accomplished from Modi and Sharif holding hands in Lahore? From Modi’s perspective, it would be good to have a ceasefire in militant attacks similar to the one that resulted from talks during the Manmohan Singh era, following the standoff over the attack on India’s Parliament. It lasted for several years, allowed India to break the back of the militancy in J&K and ended only after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Sharif, on the other hand, might just be seeking to assert himself in external relations while trying to open space for trade with India. Pakistan’s Punjabi business elite want trade with India and as a member of that elite, Sharif does too, though Pakistani critics of such trade also abound.
The best outcome in the India-Pakistan case for now comprises modest possibilities. These should not be dismissed lightly but they do not reflect a “Nixon to China” moment that dramatically transforms adversarial relations into a positive partnership.