The South Asia Channel

The grammar of politics in South Asia

It is one of the quirks of international diplomacy that an entire delegation from a superpower, traveling to a major regional power, can be based around a punctuation mark. But that is exactly what we witnessed over the weekend, as Barack Obama completed his much-discussed trip to India. The hyphen may seem innocent enough to ...


It is one of the quirks of international diplomacy that an entire delegation from a superpower, traveling to a major regional power, can be based around a punctuation mark. But that is exactly what we witnessed over the weekend, as Barack Obama completed his much-discussed trip to India.

The hyphen may seem innocent enough to casual observers of global politics, certainly less offensive than the serial comma, but it is the bane of Indian strategic thinkers. For more than a decade, India has been at pains to convince the U.S. to not treat it as one half of an ungovernable relationship with its western neighbor, and instead to establish relations with it on a purely bilateral basis, to the exclusion of Pakistan. “De-hyphenating” U.S. foreign policy in the region, making it less “Indo-Pak” and more “India here and Pakistan there,” has been one of the primary goals of Indian foreign policy since the Clinton administration.

By and large, India has succeeded in imposing this grammatical and strategic culling. This success would have been clearer had the U.S. not involved itself this decade in what seems to be an essentially unwinnable war in Afghanistan, where Pakistan — by virtue of neo-imperialist designs, geography, ethnic ties, social networks and political history — exerts great influence, to the point of being a veto player on any settlement reached in that country. The U.S. is forced to respect Pakistan’s ability to play kingmaker in Afghanistan — or spoiler, depending on the frame of reference — and thus not fully throw its lot behind India more generally.

But Af-Pak notwithstanding (a hyphenation that Pakistanis, rather than Indians, find uncomfortable), India’s relationship with the U.S. is becoming increasingly sturdy. On business, commerce, education, military hardware, nuclear energy, and maritime security, the U.S. partnership with India is growing and will continue to grow.

Curiously enough, these developments in India’s relations with the U.S. are part of the consequences of re-hyphenation. Simply put, China’s role in Asian and global politics is necessitating a balancing coalition against it, the principal parties being Japan and India, and tertiary actors like Vietnam and Australia too in the mix. In essence, the U.S. has not de-hyphenated its foreign policy toward India so much as changed the country it is hyphenated with: previously Pakistan, and now China. And while the U.S.-India relationship is not reducible to China, China does feature prominently in the strategic space between the world’s two largest democracies.

Frankly, the idea that the world’s sole superpower would divorce regional considerations in its bilateral dealings with states is foolish. As long as nation states have populated the international system, great powers have oriented their foreign policies around wider regional and global imperatives. It is no coincidence that France supported the U.S. in its war of independence against Britain; it is no coincidence that Germany viewed Austrian-Serbian relations differently than Russia in the prelude to World War I; and it is no coincidence that as China asserts itself, the U.S. finds itself in a tighter embrace with India. This is International Relations 101.

To that end, it is unsurprising that the U.S. has endorsed a seat on the U.N.’s Security Council for India. Though the announcement is largely considered symbolic rather than substantive — given that any reform of the U.N. would have to pass a China veto — it is still significant. It crystallizes the changing dynamics in Asia, and removes the ambiguity in the developing alliance patterns both regionally and globally.

Where does this leave Pakistan? It is hard to conceive of Pakistan allying even closer to China than it already does, but the burgeoning ties between the U.S. and India leave it little choice. Pakistan will continue to rely on China for infrastructural development, nuclear cooperation, and regional security — as it always has.

As for its relationship with the U.S., Pakistan simply cannot match India and thus might be better off not even trying. As analyst Mosharraf Zaidi noted in an excellent column, “Pakistan is a net-consumer of American taxpayer benevolence. India is a net-contributor to the American taxpayers’ bottom-line.” If Pakistan is waiting for the U.S. to retreat to its Indo-Pak shorthand, it will be waiting a long, long time. Once the war in Afghanistan is over, whenever that may be, Pakistan should aim at broadly cooperative relations with the U.S., but nothing more, because it is bound to be disappointed.

The disjuncture in what India and Pakistan can offer the U.S. could not be clearer, and the ways in which the U.S. interacts with the neighbors reflects that fact. When it comes to India, the U.S. talks jobs and software. When it comes to Pakistan, the U.S. talks drones and terrorism. Put differently, the U.S. wants an extensive partnership with India because of the potential benefits in doing so. But it wants an extensive partnership with Pakistan because of the potential costs in not doing so. Once the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is in the past, those potential costs will be minimized, thus affording both the U.S. and Pakistan the opportunity to disentangle from a fairly messy alliance.

All this elides the inescapable notion that whatever the fickle machinations of global power politics, the relationship that needs the most work — that between Pakistan and India — is garnering the least attention. It would be silly to pretend that the mere holding of talks or “composite dialogues” can ameliorate the tension between the two. Pakistan and India have some very deep problems that cannot be solved easily or quickly — terror, territory, and water, to name but three.

That said, there is plenty of room for cooperation between the two states, and there is no reason to leave such mutual gains on the table because of an inability to hammer out more significant agreements. For instance, the practice of jailing fishermen for long periods of time simply because they crossed maritime borders must end. These jailed fishermen became bargaining chips in the interminable political wrangling between Pakistan and India — and very small chips at that. They buy little in terms of concessions, but the cost to families and communities affected is incalculable, as depicted in the film Ramchand Pakistani.

More importantly, the two countries can relax visa and travel restrictions on each other’s citizens. Indians might chafe at such a suggestion due to security concerns, but the fact is that terrorists very rarely need an official visa to cross the border and wreak havoc. Visa and travel restrictions hurt two major groups of people more than most: divided families and tourists who would like to visit the other country, and commercial interests. Trade between India and Pakistan today stands at a pitiful $1.65 billion; estimates suggest it could easily be an order of magnitude higher with trade and travel restrictions eased.

This is not to suggest that cooperation on “smaller” issues will develop into a broad-based partnership; the international relations literature is still divided on whether increased trade leads to more cooperation between states. But smaller gains are worth it in and of themselves, and the two states should not let larger stumbling blocks impede progress in other areas.

Moreover, recent history has shown that the two countries are not as far off a deal on major issues as commonly thought. The Onion once memorably claimed that if all else fails, India and Pakistan will have their issues resolved in 800 billion years due to the shifting of tectonic plates underneath the earth’s surface. Such cynicism is understandable, but slightly misplaced.

Just in the last ten years, the governments of India and Pakistan have come narrowly close to resolving very thorny issues, such as Kashmir. In the late 1990s, Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, though back-channel dialogue, were on the cusp of ironing an agreement out — until the disastrous Kargil adventure led by Pervez Musharraf put an end to those plans. In the mid-2000s, Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were on the verge of a final settlement on Kashmir, before domestic problems with the judiciary in 2007 caused Musharraf to back off.

It is notable that the leaders involved in those negotiations were not outwardly similar. Vajpayee was a center-right leader or a right-wing nationalist coalition; Manmohan a center-left leader of a Congress-led coalition. Sharif was an authoritarian civilian with a strong conservative bent; Musharraf was the gung-ho general who initiated a war against India in 1999 but then made rapprochement with India his central foreign policy objective as president. If these gentlemen — or rather the civil servants, foreign policy bureaucrats and negotiating teams under them — could come as close as they did, it stands to reason that a sustainable détente is not out of the question. Difficult? Absolutely. Impossible? Absolutely not.

Ahsan Butt is a PhD student in political science at the University of Chicago. He blogs at Five Rupees.

Ahsan I. Butt is a Stanton Nuclear Security Junior Faculty Fellow with the International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and an Assistant Professor at the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University.

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