Narendra Modi shares emotive conversation with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif
Narendra Modi shares emotive conversation with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

Recent developments in Indian and Pakistani relations may provide cause for cautious optimism. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made history this Christmas when he became the first Prime Minister to visit his counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in Lahore in 12 years. This largely symbolic gesture – the visit was just a few hours long – is nonetheless reflective of the greater inclination towards cooperation between these two regional rivals that has already been showcased in the month since this meeting.

Notably, Pakistan and India have already begun to work more closely in combatting terror. After an attack on an Indian Air Force Base in early January, Sharif personally called Modi promising “to take firm and immediate action against [those] responsible for … the Pathankot terrorist attack.” True to his word, Sharif announced the arrests of several members of the Pakistani terrorist group Jaish-e-Muhammed, who claimed responsibility for the attack. These arrests satisfied Indian authorities, who pledged, the day after the arrests, to reschedule diplomatic talks that had been cancelled in the wake of the attacks.

Both states were also recently invited to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a multilateral organization for communication and cooperation between Central Asian states, and both will accede to their seats as full members in 2016 after years as observer states. The SCO focuses on cooperation in economic and security affairs – specifically the threat of terrorism in Central Asia – and hosts two annual summits, the Council of Heads of State and the Council of Heads of Government, as well as regular meetings of the Council of Foreign Ministers. That both states accepted invitations to join the regional body the same day could signal a new era of economic cooperation between the states.

Pakistan and India have also agreed to cooperate on the building of the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline which will transport oil from Turkmenistan to India through Pakistan and Afghanistan. While India is still in negotiations over transit fees with both Pakistan and Afghanistan, construction of the pipeline began in Turkmenistan in December after India’s state-owned gas company reached an agreement with Turkmengaz, its Turkmen counterpart.

Yet, while there is some cause for renewed hope for cooperation, India and Pakistan are still far from solving several key disputes. The greatest challenge India and Pakistan must face is the question of Kashmir, the disputed region north of India, where India, Pakistan and China have all staked territorial claims. As recently as this past August, India and Pakistan engaged in armed hostilities at the border in Kashmir, resulting in several civilian casualties.

Kashmir is not the only source of conflict between these two regional rivals. The Indo-Pakistani relationship is in no small part defined by the nuclear weapon stockpiles held on both sides of the border. A recent Congressional report revealed that the Pakistani nuclear weapons program was designed with the express intent of deterring an Indian incursion, a strategy termed “full spectrum deterrence”. The Pakistani government confirmed their willingness to use low-yield nuclear weapons to forestall a military incursion into Pakistani or Pakistani-governed territory, lowering the threshold for the use of a nuclear weapon considerably. And while India has not pursued development of so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons – as opposed to high-yield “strategic” nuclear weapons – both states continue the production of nuclear weapons and neither have ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, severely undermining its effectiveness.

The nations’ relations with their only shared neighbor is also a key source of discord. India has come to view China as one of its greatest threats since the Sino-Indian War of 1962, in which Indian forces were pushed back from the Kashmir-China border and lost significant territory. Tehmina Mahmood of the Pakistani Institute of International Affairs suggests that, while Pakistan’s reluctance to agree to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons stems from its fear of Indian superiority in conventional warfare, India’s reluctance stems, not from Pakistani proliferation, but from China’s military superiority over India. Although PM Modi has made building economic ties with China one of his chief priorities, there remain significant concerns of “encirclement” within the Indian government.

Pakistan’s close ties to China, both economic and military, have exacerbated those concerns. China has begun development of a series of railways, roads, bridges and oil pipelines between China and Pakistan in an effort to draw relations between the countries closer and to expand its influence into the Middle East and beyond. India’s Prime Minister called the project “unacceptable.” Besides India’s concerns about growing ties between its two chief rivals, Modi also objects strenuously to the corridor’s projected path, which passes through the hotly contested, but Pakistani-controlled, region of Kashmir called Gilgit-Baltistan. India’s government believes this will further cement Pakistani control over the region and ensure that China will intervene on Pakistan’s behalf in any conflict, either with India or with Kashmiri separatists who objected strongly to the agreement for similar reasons.

Pakistan also recently joined with China to develop a naval base at Gwadar Port in Baluchistan. India worries that this is a further step in a Chinese plan to encircle India with Chinese allies. India’s government contends that China’s recent diplomatic overtures to nations surrounding India – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan – are part of a plan to neutralize the threat of a growing Indian Navy and maintain China’s naval dominance in the Far East. Any moves by the Pakistani government to create closer military ties with China will be met with fierce Indian resistance.

While the recent cooperation in the realms of counter-terrorism and economic development bode well for international stability in the region, these issues will continue to derail any movement towards normalization of relations between India and Pakistan. Without a permanent resolution to Kashmir, the nuclear arms race, and Chinese involvement on the Indian subcontinent, it will be impossible to achieve enduring peace. Growing economic ties and increased cooperation between security services can forestall war, but they cannot prevent it.