Meetings with a message

Print edition : July 30, 2004
in Singapore

THE recent political-level interactions between India and Pakistan on the sidelines of two regional conferences in East Asia cannot be dismissed as cameos of bonhomie. The meetings which External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh held with Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri at the Chinese city of Qingdao on June 21 and in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta on July 2 were much more than marginal events.

The possibility of yet another new beginning on the India-Pakistan diplomatic front in the context of the assumption of office by a Congress-led coalition government is no mirage, judged by the comments of both sides. However, it is an altogether different matter whether the latest dialogue process can really prove decisive in shaping a friendly relationship that can also be sustained.

After the Natwar Singh-Kasuri meeting in Qingdao, held on the sidelines of the Asian Cooperation Dialogue, India said the two leaders had agreed to "provide continuous political guidance" to those already engaged in the current process of bilateral parleys under the matrix of a composite dialogue. The "progress" already made in these official-level discussions on various subjects was also described by the two leaders as a "positive" trend. More important, the Qindao meeting, the first of its kind between India and Pakistan at the political level after the formation of the new Indian government, was described by the Indian Embassy in Beijing as a "warm and productive" exercise in diplomatic engagement.

"Productive" certainly was the Natwar Singh-Kasuri meeting in terms of weaving a web of new connections. However, it would be naive to look for any "productive" outcome in terms of progress in resolving the fundamental issues at stake, particularly the one relating to Jammu and Kashmir, in the specific context of the Qingdao or Jakarta meetings.

The most significant comment that Pakistan made after the Natwar Singh-Kasuri conversation in Jakarta was that the two leaders agreed that the current "momentum of [the bilateral] dialogue process [would] be kept up". The Indian `take' on the talks in Jakarta was that the two men agreed not only to "continue" the overall bilateral dialogue-process but even carry it "forward".

It is easy, of course, to strike a sceptical note by arguing that much should not be read into the substance of such unstructured meetings. However, a credible counter-point is that India-Pakistan diplomatic encounters of the political kind, wherever they might occur, cannot be regarded as non-events. In fact, each of these meetings was preceded by a substantive bilateral engagement at other levels. An expert-level agreement, reached in New Delhi on certain aspects of risk reductions (concerning nuclear weapons), provided the immediate context for the Natwar Singh-Kasuri talks at Qingdao. The Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan had met, also in New Delhi, shortly before the political-level talks in Jakarta.

In Jakarta, according to Pakistan, Natwar Singh was the first leader to greet Kasuri after it was formally admitted to the Association of South East Asian Nations' Regional Forum (ARF), Asia's only elite security-dialogue forum. Significantly, it was the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led coalition which agreed to go along with the general "consensus" within the ARF to take Pakistan aboard. Hence Natwar Singh's gesture to Kasuri at the ARF platform was noteworthy.

In some ways, the Natwar Singh-Kasuri talks at Qingdao marked an exercise in positive thinking. The nuclear risk-related confidence building measures (CBMs), which the experts had agreed upon prior to this meeting, provided quite an unusual setting as Natwar Singh and Kasuri sought to establish a working relationship at the political echelons. Kasuri later told this correspondent over phone that it was Natwar Singh who showed him the text of the accord on the CBMs.

Noting that the CBMs could herald a process of detente on the `nuclearised' India-Pakistan front, Kasuri made a particularly India-friendly comment that was indicative of the potential for a meeting of minds on the highly sensitive nuclear issue.

Although Pakistan does not subscribe to the principle of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, a norm that the Vajpayee-led government had set forth after conducting nuclear tests at Pokhran in 1998, Kasuri said: "We are responsible countries. Nobody should talk down to Pakistan and India. We are interested in non-proliferation."

If, however, the India-Pakistan talks in Qingdao did not touch upon Natwar Singh's earlier proposal for a common nuclear security doctrine involving not only New Delhi and Islamabad but also Beijing, the reason was traced to the fact that the idea had been put in perspective through a "clarification" soon after it was articulated.

In any case, the Natwar Singh-Kasuri meeting, which also had elements of a get-acquainted exercise, was not of a long-enough duration for detailed explorations of new and emerging ideas. However, the international community will watch closely for any China angle in the India-Pakistan dialogue, given the projections by Western Beijing-watchers like Bates Gill that "the most intense competition in the near term between China and India will be in the strategic nuclear realm".

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