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Pakistan Army chief reaches out to India, says time to bury past, move forward

Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa seeks ‘conducive environment’ in Kashmir, does not mention UN resolutions, 2019 changes

Written by Nirupama Subramanian
Mumbai | Updated: March 19, 2021 7:15:25 am
Pakistan's Army Chief of Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

The Pakistani military establishment signalled a potentially radical shift in how it has traditionally viewed relations with India in a speech by Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa on Thursday, which set out a vision of regional economic integration for the betterment of both countries and for South Asia — with the only ask that New Delhi create a “conducive environment” in Kashmir for the resumption of a dialogue towards peace between the two countries.

Bajwa, who spoke at a high-powered event called Islamabad Security Dialogue organised by Pakistan’s national security establishment, did not specify what he meant by “conducive” conditions in Kashmir, but it was significant that he did not mention the Pakistani mantra of the United Nations Security Council resolutions on Kashmir, nor did he demand a rollback of the August 5, 2019 changes in Jammu & Kashmir.

“It is important to understand that without the resolution of Kashmir dispute through peaceful means, process of sub-continental rapprochement will always remain susceptible to derailment due to politically motivated bellicosity. However, we feel that it is time to bury the past and move forward,” the Pakistan Army chief said, qualifying that “for resumption of peace process or meaningful dialogue, our neighbour will have to create conducive environment, particularly in [Kashmir].”

Stable India-Pakistan relations, he said, was “a key to unlock the untapped potential of South and Central Asia by ensuring connectivity between East and West Asia”, but this potential had been hostage to disputes and issues between the two “nuclear armed” neighbours, with Kashmir at the top of the list of problems.

On Wednesday, speaking on the first day of the same event, Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has often said that his government and the Army are “on the same page”, also projected a vision of connectivity and economic prosperity for the region, but said Kashmir remained the “biggest hurdle between the two countries”.

Pakistan had made all efforts for better ties with India, PM Khan said, and now “India will have to take the first step. Unless they do so, we cannot do much”.

Explained

Pak buffeted by multiple crises, signalling change of position

Bajwa has said it is a rational choice to see the region in terms of geo-economic integration rather than geo-strategic rivalries. Pakistan is grappling with questions of economic survival in the post-Covid world, alongside the threat of blacklisting by FATF. India has much to gain if this shift is for real.

He also referred to the UNSC resolutions, saying “If India gives the Kashmiris their right under the UN, it will be greatly beneficial for Pakistan as well as India.”

Even so, this is a big change in Pakistan’s earlier position that India must reverse its August 5, 2019 “annexation” of Kashmir for any meaningful dialogue between the two countries.

There has been no official response from India on the remarks by Gen Bajwa or Prime Minister Khan. However, Bajwa’s speech, which was notable for the absence of any references on Kashmir that were likely to be panned by New Delhi, came against the backdrop of the February 25 agreement between the two sides for “strict observance” of the 2003 understanding for a ceasefire at the Line of Control and the International Border, and may be an indication of the broad intended direction of this detente.

The Director Generals of Military Operations of the two sides, who were the signatories of the joint statement on the ceasefire, had “agreed to address each other’s core issues and concerns which have propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence”. Since then, no incidents of cross-LoC or cross-border firing have taken place.

While the ceasefire has provided long-awaited relief to the armies and civilians on both sides of the LoC, both have also tamped down bigger expectations from the ceasefire.

On the Indian side, officials have stressed that any wider relaxation of bilateral tensions would take place only if Pakistan created an “environment free of terror and hostility”.

Top sources in the Pakistani security establishment had told The Indian Express earlier this month that the ceasefire agreement was only a “tactical” response to the situation at the LoC, as the cross firing was causing a high number of civilian deaths. Anything more would depend on India taking the first step, which the sources said, should be the restoration of statehood in Kashmir as a “starting point” for a dialogue.

At a strategic level, faced with a huge economic crisis that has only got worse due to the Covid-19 epidemic, and amid a geopolitical flux in West Asia, humiliating demands from even friendly nations to return their loans, Pakistan has been signalling to the world that it is rethinking its national security model.

“Pakistan is decidedly on an economic security paradigm now, and this is a shift. There is whole framework behind it, with the entire national security conception built around economic security at its core, and that then benefiting human welfare and military security,” said a key Pakistani source, familiar with the deliberations on this issue.

The central theme of this new model is Pakistan’s “economic location”, the source said, and the connectivity between east and west that Pakistan can offer and, linked to that, “development partnerships – no more assistance from the world, but co-investment opportunities, of which CPEC is an example, but not the only one”.

For instance, as Imran Khan pointed out on Wednesday, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan have recently signed a roadmap agreement for a 573-km train line from Tashkent to Peshawar via Kabul.

Bajwa appeared to speak in this vein as he talked of Pakistan as a nation with “tremendous geo-economic potential” and listed “the four pillars” of Pakistan’s new national security “paradigm”: moving towards lasting peace within and outside; non-interference in internal affairs of neighbouring and regional countries; boosting intra-regional trade and connectivity; bringing sustainable development and prosperity through establishment of investment and economic hubs in the region.

Outlining a vision of regional economic integration through the revival of SAARC and a peaceful Afghanistan, he said Pakistan’s efforts towards these objectives, along with its “responsible and mature behaviour in crisis situations with India, manifest our desire to change the narrative of geo-political contestation into geo-economic integration”.

He also seemed to be offering the reassurance that Pakistan’s strategic and economic partnership with China, while being central to its new framework of national security, was not the limit of this vision.

“[O]nly seeing Pakistan through CPEC vision is also misleading,” he said, describing Pakistan as a country of immense and diverse potential which can very positively contribute to regional development and prosperity”.

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