The logic of economic growth finally impinges on India-Pakistan relations
One of the interesting outcomes of Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs Easter lunch with the visiting Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is the idea of South Asia emulating the China model.
In his talks with the PM on Sunday,Zardari apparently suggested that Delhi and Islamabad should follow the paradigm developed by India and China in improving their relations over the last two decades.
In their bilateral template,Delhi and Beijing have sought to focus on deeper economic cooperation,ensure frequent high-level contacts,manage political differences,build military confidence and stay engaged with the core disputes.
Put simply,the China model is about pragmatism that privileges national development through stronger economic cooperation between neighbours. It is about making advances in areas of economic self-interest while negotiating continuously on contentious political issues.
Zardari is not the first Pakistani leader to offer the China model. Zardaris wife and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto held up the progress in Sino-Indian relations as a benchmark for Indo-Pak ties before her life was cut short by an assassin in 2007.
Soon after the Pakistan Peoples Party returned to power in 2008,Zardari articulated the case for focusing first on economic and trade relations with India. For his bold departure from conventional wisdom in Pakistan,Zardari was rebuked by the deep state in Pakistan.
Zardari,however,demonstrated his commitment to the China model by working for a roadmap to restore non-discriminatory trade relations with India that was unveiled a few weeks ago.
But there is no denying the entrenched opposition in India and Pakistan to the China model for bilateral relations. In Pakistan,opponents accuse Zardari of abandoning the core issue the resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir question. In India,there is the familiar argument that there can be no normal relations with Pakistan unless Islamabad dismantles the infrastructure on cross-border terrorism.
To be sure,opposition to the pragmatic,step-by-step construction of a normal relationship between India and Pakistan outlined by Singh and Zardari on Sunday will perdure. If Singh and Zardari,however,persist in expanding trade and economic cooperation,they have a historic opportunity to restructure the India-Pakistan relationship.
The dramatic expansion of Indias trade relationship with China from less than a billion dollars in 2000 to $75 billion in 2011 has not eliminated bilateral differences on a range of issues,including the boundary dispute and the sensitive Tibet question. The expanded commercial relationship has indeed generated a range of new trade disputes.
Yet,in deepening their economic partnership,intensifying political consultations,exploring regional cooperation and widening the interface between the two societies,Delhi and Beijing have created powerful new stakeholders on both sides for a stable bilateral relationship. By any measure,that is a solid experience for Delhi and Islamabad to emulate.
For India,the immediate lesson is to reciprocate quickly to Pakistans gestures on trade liberalisation. Delhi must immediately reduce its sensitive list of imports to facilitate more Pakistani commerce with India. The scheduled opening of the integrated check post at Wagah-Attari on the Punjab border on Baisakhi day provides a good occasion to announce Indias trade concessions to Pakistan.
Delhi is unlikely to get a satisfactory answer on cross-border terrorism by merely making demands. It will have to influence Pakistans internal debate on its overall approach to India and its investment in terror infrastructure.
For decades now,Pakistans army has sought to leverage terrorism as an instrument of policy towards India and Afghanistan. The costs of that policy are coming home to roost as the United States and China join India in pointing fingers at the terror sanctuaries on Pakistani soil. In any event,its effectiveness is being questioned by Pakistans civilian leaders.
The pressures to change in Pakistan are real; it is not inconceivable that over a period of time,Islamabad will recognise that there are alternatives for Pakistan to exercise regional influence. For one,Pakistan could leverage its geopolitical location as an economic bridge between the subcontinent,Persian Gulf,Central Asia and Western China.
If change is inevitable,Delhis interest lies in constructing economic incentives for Pakistans internal and external reorientation. Faced with deteriorating economic conditions at home,Pakistan will need a new growth strategy that must necessarily include a measure of regional cooperation with India.
Until now,security considerations have been the sole determining factor in the visa policies of India and Pakistan. That was also the situation in India-China relations for a long time. But the imperatives of development and the prospects for revenues from tourism have altered the way Delhi and Beijing look at the question of granting visas to each others citizens. India and Pakistan can now look beyond the liberalisation of visas for businessmen and find ways to promote religious and cultural tourism that can unlock the huge travel business between the two nations.
On J&K too it is possible to imagine substantive trade initiatives across the Line of Control. The current mechanisms for commercial interaction across the LoC are symbolic at best and their upgrade will have a big impact on the lives of ordinary people in J&K.
Expanded economic engagement between India and Pakistan could also alter the current dynamic of mutual suspicion and rivalry in Afghanistan. Briefing the media on the Singh-Zardari talks,the foreign secretary,Ranjan Mathai,said the two leaders discussed the developments in the region and are determined to use the potential of regional cooperation for the economic development of both India and Pakistan. The idea of triangular trade and transit arrangements between Delhi and Islamabad presents itself in any future framework for long overdue regional integration in the north-western subcontinent.
All these initiatives are bound to meet with much political resistance in India and Pakistan. But the logic of economic growth and the political imperative of generating prosperity at home have finally begun to impinge on India-Pakistan relations. That is the main message from the discussion between Singh and Zardari on the China model.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi