The rhetoric surrounding last weekend’s summit meeting between Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, could hardly have been grander. The vehicle for the consultations — the inauguration of the first bus service between the two countries in 51 years — was held out as a breakthrough in South Asian diplomacy. And, indeed, the results of the meeting were positive. But to call the summit the most significant round of regional diplomacy since 1972 only highlights the abysmal state of relations between the two countries.
The symbolism surrounding the meeting was powerful. Mr. Vajpayee’s visit to the minar-I-Pakistan monument, which commemorates the Muslim League’s 1940 decision to create a separate Muslim state, was designed to signal acceptance of Pakistan’s political legitimacy by both India and the prime minister’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Since India’s own political legitimacy is based on the idea of a multiethnic state, the gesture should not be lightly dismissed. The willingness of both prime ministers to issue a document speaks to their seriousness, too. And most reports speak of a genuine rapport between the two men.
The Lahore Declaration itself is being compared with the Simla Declaration, issued in 1972, the year after the two countries clashed over Bangladesh. This new document commits the two governments to begin talks on security that will help ease the tensions that spur their rivalry. Among other things, that means upgrading the talks currently being held to the ministerial level. In addition, the two sides pledged to give advanced warning before conducting ballistic missile tests, to take immediate steps to cut the chances of accidental nuclear war, as well as to “intensify efforts” to resolve the outstanding issues between them.
There are a host of problems, ranging from water rights to visas, but the chief sticking point continues to be the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the territory and it continues to divide the two countries. Pakistan demands that there be a final settlement of its status before the bilateral relationship can be normalized. From Islamabad’s view, that means there must be a U.N.-sponsored referendum on the territory’s future, a position that New Delhi refuses to accept.
Diplomatic cheerleaders proclaimed the Lahore summit a “milestone” in relations between the two countries. The truth, however, is closer to the assessment of one Indian official who considered the two men to be building “an architecture for consultation.” Perhaps the high-powered rhetoric will help the two nations work together to solve the issues that have divided them for over half a century, but good intentions cannot substitute for the hard work and compromises that will be required to make a workable, enduring peace. The trick is to use the goodwill that is in such abundance to jump-start the process. There is no time to waste.
One way of making progress would be to frame important parts of the bilateral relationship within the broader international framework created by the antiproliferation regime. If confidence-building is desired, the two countries should sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty as a first step. That should be followed by accession to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. That would not only reinforce the international norm that considers nuclear weapons illegal — a prohibition that was weakened by the May tests conducted by both countries — but it would also renew the pressure on the nuclear-weapons possessing nations to cut their stockpiles and move toward eventual disarmament.
Few issues have a greater importance to Japan — or for the world, for that matter. That is why the government of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi applauded the Lahore Declaration, yet announced that it is not enough to ease the economic sanctions that Tokyo has imposed on the two countries in the wake of last year’s tests. That is the correct decision. Japan is always willing to assist those nations that are willing to help themselves. But those responsibilities are owed to both a nation’s citizens and the international community as a whole. We share the hope the India and Pakistan can put their 51 contentious years behind them and move forward toward peace, stability and prosperity in South Asia. But after the bus ride, there is still walking to be done.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.