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January 4, 2016

Asymmetric bilateralism


January 4, 2016

Bilateralism in international relations refers to the political, economic, or cultural relations between two sovereign states. In Subcontinental logic, bilateralism between India and Pakistan became a major policy option at the time of the Simla Agreement. However, Pakistan was on a very weak wicket in July 1972 and the Simla Agreement was more of a fait accompli than a discourse between two equals.

Can bilateralism be a successful recipe for international relations between two states in an asymmetric environment, where the politico-military power of one side outweighs the smaller one – especially if there is historical baggage of hostility and apprehension? How does nuclearisation of India and the emerging strategic environment allow the smaller power, Pakistan, to pursue its national objectives vis-a-vis India?

The pursuit of bilateralism by India and Pakistan to solve major problems and conflicts has not resulted in any major breakthrough. In fact, India being the status-quo power has drawn disproportionate mileage out of the spirit of Simla. India has been blatantly violating the Indus Water Treaty by building dams and hydro-power structures and has denied any meaningful discourse to address Pakistan’s sensitivities and position.

If the Simla Agreement is the new gospel in solving bilateral problems, why has it failed to help Pakistan guard its interests? The answer is simple; in an asymmetric strategic environment the status-quo power will always dominate the proceedings of any discourse between two unequals. The status-quo power has major control over the kinetic and non-kinetic options of delay, deceit, subterfuge, blackmail, benignity, magnanimity or war.

India has used all of these options in its dealings with Pakistan on the thorny issues of Kashmir or the Indus Waters Treaty. In the non-kinetic realm, India has pursued the options of sustained cultural war, fruitless diplomatic niceties, economic bait, coercion through proxies and non- serious discourse on the media to convince the Pakistani leadership as well as intelligentsia that Kashmir is a dead cause.

Has bilateralism given anything to Pakistan? A peep into past would give us some food for thought; the Simla Agreement could not prevent the relationship between the two countries from deteriorating to the point of armed conflict. India seized most of the Siachen Glacier in Operation Meghdoot of 1984, taking advantage of poor demarcation of the area, although it was considered as violation of Simla Agreement by Pakistan.

The asymmetry between a status-quo power (India) and lesser power (Pakistan), prevented us from doing anything about it. Let us see the spirit of the Simla Agreement on the issue of the Line of Control. The agreement converted the ceasefire line of December 17, 1971 into the LoC between India and Pakistan and it was agreed that “neither side shall seek to alter it unilaterally, irrespective of mutual differences and legal interpretations”. This is a classic example of bilateralism between two states in an asymmetric environment.

With the nuclearisation of South Asia, the strategic environment has undergone a major shift. The spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and Pakistan’s capability to offer a strong nuclear deterrence against Indian hegemony has largely addressed the issue of military asymmetry vis-a-vis India. However, economic and diplomatic asymmetry is still prevalent and India’s international clout and media muscle allows it to arm twist Pakistan, although with some limitations.

Pakistan could move on the diplomatic, informational and economic front with more confidence due to the following major factors:

• The changing dynamics of international power play has placed Pakistan at the centre-stage in West, Central and South Asia. The growing anxiety in the Middle East and security compulsions of the Gulf States (including Iran) could see an increase in Pakistan’s strategic weight in the coming decade.

• Pakistan is a natural energy conduit between energy deficient giants like India and China and the hydrocarbon hub of the Middle East and Central Asia. Pakistan is also located on the proposed Eurasian highway connecting Europe with South East Asia through West Asia.

• Pakistan’s demographic profile is enviable and has the potential to feed the human resource market of Europe, North America and Sub Saharan Africa which combined need approximately two million young people every year to keep their systems running in good shape.

• The Pakistani military has proven its mettle at home and abroad and is projected to become the first military to comprehensively defeat terrorism. It is in high demand internationally for peace support operations.

If Afghanistan and Iran could draw in multiple stakeholders in resolving issues related to national security, why should Pakistan stick to the outdated Simla Agreement when it has given us nothing substantial? Unfortunately bilateralism has been exploited by India to its strategic advantage. Pakistan’s military and nuclear potential, combined with the factors mentioned earlier, give it more room to break the shackles of psychological asymmetry vis-a-vis India and should be exploited by our Foreign Office, Ministry of Information and Ministry of Commerce to pursue our national interests. Internally, Kashmiris and even Indian Punjab’s Khalistan Movement supporters have developed a critical mass that wants recognition of its identity.

Pakistan could pursue multilateral options vis-a-vis India, including expanding the scope of discussion and negotiation on Kashmir and the Indus Waters Treaty with other stakeholders, the Kashmiri diaspora, China and even the US so that a lasting solution to these issues is reached in a comfortable timeframe. Apart from diplomatic niceties, issues of life and death for nations cannot be solved by exchanging smiles and gifts. The leadership has to be resilient and persistent in pursuing core national interests.

The writer is a Lahore-based defence analyst.

Email: [email protected]



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