Michael Kugelman on the India-Pakistan Relationship

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Michael Kugelman on the India-Pakistan Relationship

Pakistan wants a more stable relationship with India, but “that doesn’t mean it wants to pursue reconciliation.”

Michael Kugelman on the India-Pakistan Relationship

Foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) states attend a meeting in Goa India, May 5, 2023,

Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Pakistan

On May 4 and 5, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was in India for a Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting. It was the first visit by a Pakistani foreign minister to India since 2011 – but given the multilateral nature of the trip, it very much did not mark a breakthrough in bilateral relations. 

To unpack the SCO meeting – and the broader outlook for India-Pakistan ties – The Diplomat interviewed Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. and a leading specialist on Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan and their relations with the United States. Kugelman notes that the India-Pakistan relationship is in a bad place today, but outside concerns are working to prevent escalation. Simply put, neither India nor Pakistan can afford a crisis along their border.

With his attendance at the SCO Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Goa, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari became the highest-ranking Pakistani official to visit India in nearly a decade. What did you make of the bilateral dynamic during Bhutto Zardari’s time in India?

Seen strictly from an India-Pakistan bilateral lens, his time in India was an unmitigated disaster. There was no sideline meeting between Bhutto Zardari and his counterpart, S. Jaishankar. Their only encounter came during a brief greeting ceremony where the body language of both men was stiff and uncomfortable. Bhutto Zardari laid out views about Kashmir and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that New Delhi unsurprisingly took issue with. This led Jaishankar, in a post-summit press conference, to lambast Bhutto Zardari as a spokesperson for a terrorist state. 

I wouldn’t say any of this damaged India-Pakistan relations in a big way (after all, ugly rhetoric and unpopular policy positions are quite typical for the relationship), but it certainly did nothing to improve relations, not even in a small way.

Naturally, critics of Bhutto Zardari and his government will seize on this outcome and question his decision to visit India to start with, given that he took the bold decision to go to India, only to be humiliated by his Indian counterpart. That’s only a valid argument if one believes he went to Goa hoping to strengthen India-Pakistan relations. If that’s the case, then the trip was an utter failure. However, my sense is he went in great part to strengthen engagement with the SCO and to hold bilateral meetings with key countries – China, Russia, and four Central Asian states. As I note below, the SCO is a rare regional organization that – despite India’s membership – can be helpful for Pakistan, given that it’s dominated by China, Pakistan’s closest ally.

This was the first time a Pakistani foreign minister visited India since Hina Rabbani Khar went in 2011. At that time, reconciliation was a real goal. She visited Delhi specifically to meet Indian officials, at a moment when steps were being taken to increase trade relations. It was also a moment when the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was in severe stress. So it was the right time, back then, for Pakistan to make a pitch for reconciliation (even though it failed). Now is not the right time, as circumstances are quite different. The relationship today is in a much worse place than in 2011.

More generally, how has the tendentious relationship between India and Pakistan impacted the SCO? Tensions between them have effectively crashed the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and there were concerns their inclusion in the SCO could have a similar impact on the group. 

It’s true that SAARC has effectively been paralyzed by India-Pakistan tensions, given that SAARC operates based on unanimity and India and Pakistan rarely agree on anything. But the dynamic with SCO is different. China is the most dominant member, not India. The presence of both China and Russia mean that India and Pakistan enjoy less clout within SCO than they do within SAARC. 

I’d actually argue that SCO is a rare multilateral organization where Pakistan is advantaged more than India. SCO is dominated by China, an ally of Pakistan and a rival of India. With Russia weakened by its war in Ukraine, China stands to become even more influential within SCO. And that’s another advantage for Islamabad.

All this said, India-Pakistan rivalry does play out within SCO. Half the SCO membership is based in Central Asia, a region that has become a new battleground for India-Pakistan competition – mainly because of its vast natural resources. Pakistan enjoys direct land access via Afghanistan, though India has sought to keep up through developing new dialogue mechanisms with Central Asian states. New Delhi and Islamabad want to use their SCO membership to strengthen engagement with the group’s four Central Asian states, as part of their respective broader efforts to develop a deeper footprint in that region.

Pakistan is in crisis on multiple fronts, from the economic to the political. How is this impacting the foreign policy decisions being made, especially with regards to India? 

For much of Pakistan’s existence, Islamabad’s foreign policy has revolved around countering India, which Islamabad hasn’t done very successfully. But that policy has changed over the last few years, with Pakistani officials now calling for a redirect that emphasizes scaling up trade and connectivity around the region and holding out the possibility of eventual reconciliation with India – but with the caveat that New Delhi changes its Kashmir policy, which isn’t about to happen.

With the emergence of Pakistan’s “polycrisis,” it is further downgrading its focus on India in its foreign policy. Simply put, with so many acute crises playing out at home, it literally can’t afford a fresh crisis – or even serious tensions – with India. Recall what happened last year, when an Indian supersonic missile was accidentally launched and flew dozens of miles across Pakistan before crashing to the ground. At a different time, that might have provoked a crisis. But Pakistan, clearly not wanting escalation, responded with restraint, and a crisis was averted.

The relationship has actually been relatively stable over the last two years, since India and Pakistan signed a new truce along their disputed border, which has led to reductions in violence. And that’s how Pakistan wants things to stay. Today, its foreign policy is mainly driven by diplomacy focused on securing economic assistance. But, all this said, just because Pakistan wants a more stable relationship, that doesn’t mean it wants to pursue reconciliation.

Meanwhile, India is gearing up for its 2024 general elections – and a former governor of Jammu and Kashmir recently lobbed accusations that the ruling BJP had deliberately manipulated the aftermath of the 2018 terrorist attack in Pulwama for maximum electoral gain. Could we see a rise in anti-Pakistan rhetoric in the lead-up to the polls – and possibly even military clashes, as seen in 2019?

I certainly can envisage a rise in anti-Pakistan rhetoric as the election campaign heats up. The BJP ramped up that rhetoric before the 2019 election, and it won in a landslide. One should be cautious in linking the two – the BJP won for many reasons – but the ruling party surely believes it certainly won’t hurt its political prospects by cutting loose on the campaign trail with vitriolic rhetoric against Pakistan.

I don’t think India would want to see a military clash. And if there is one, I doubt it would be triggered by election-related considerations. In fact New Delhi, like Islamabad, has an interest in reduced tensions. India wants to allocate as much foreign policy and defense bandwidth as possible to managing the threat posed by China, which is most definitely New Delhi’s biggest security concern. It can’t afford a fresh crisis on its western front while it’s dealing with such a difficult challenge on its northern border. This is likely a big reason why India signed on to the 2021 border truce with Pakistan. 

Now, to be sure, if there’s a terrorist attack in India in the coming months and New Delhi believes – or alleges – that it originated in Pakistan, then all bets would be off and a clash could well ensue. But I don’t think India will have a reason to try to pick a fight with Pakistan, beyond a rhetorical, politically driven one. It wants to focus laser-like on China.

How is the United States’ tilt toward India, amid competition with China – and away from Pakistan, following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan – impacting the India-Pakistan relationship? 

Deepening U.S.-India security cooperation is heightening Pakistan’s sense of vulnerability in the face of its more powerful Indian rival. Washington is scaling up arms sales and defense technology transfers to New Delhi, and the two are now implementing defense foundational accords that equip the Indian military with better communication and intelligence technologies. Even with the security assistance that Pakistan gets from China, this surge in U.S. military support to India will add to New Delhi’s advantage in conventional military power over Islamabad. This could intensify longstanding worries in Pakistan about the threat posed by India to Pakistan. And that’s not good for a relationship already fraught with fragility and mistrust.

The beneficiary of all this is China. With the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations uncertain, Islamabad’s dependence on Beijing for economic and military support has grown, giving China more leverage over Pakistan. Additionally, the boost in Indian military capacities generated by growing U.S.-India security cooperation is another motivation for Pakistan to move closer to China, and that gives Beijing even more leverage over Islamabad. That leverage enables China to take a tougher line on Pakistan, as we’ve seen with its decision to hold back from providing Pakistan with large amounts of bailout funds during its current economic crisis, because it knows Islamabad isn’t about to protest or push back against what China is doing.