ISLAMABAD — India and Pakistan have maintained an ongoing standoff for much of their 52-year history, but it is only during moments of heightened tension that the international community focuses on South Asia.
For the past few weeks, tensions have again been on the rise following a clash between troops along the disputed border in Kashmir known as the Line Of Control. While the two sides continue to trade charges over who fired the first shot in the recent skirmishes, the more pressing question for the international community is how to resolve the ongoing conflict between South Asia’s two nuclear powers.
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution for ending the Indo-Pakistani conflict, which has cost dearly in terms of human life and material expenses. Pakistan insists upon a plebiscite for the people of Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim state that is divided between the two South Asian countries. India, which believes that the decade-old challenge to Indian rule in Kashmir by Muslim separatists is largely fueled by support from Pakistan, argues that its deployment of thousands of troops to combat the insurgency is justified regardless of the ramifications for regional security.
After the most recent exchange of fire, the West, particularly the United States, expressed concerns over the situation and urged both sides to demonstrate restraint. But this message, delivered many times before, fell upon deaf ears in South Asia.
Can India and Pakistan set aside their differences and make a new beginning? While there are no easy answers to this question, three factors must be taken into account.
First, the degree of international involvement in helping to resolve the conflict will make a difference. For far too long the world has paid only lip service to the idea of intervention in the region, which many see as a flash point for regional and international security. In days to come, the United States is expected to announce if President Bill Clinton will visit Pakistan when he travels to South Asia later this year in what will be the first visit to the region by a U.S. president in 21 years. The U.S. may drop Pakistan from his itinerary in response to the military takeover. Pakistani officials say privately that such a move would likely embolden the country’s hardliners, who could demand the government take a tougher stance in areas such as nuclear policy.
Second, the economic outlook for India and Pakistan may also help determine how the two countries respond to international pressures their nuclear policies. While India’s relative economic stability gives New Delhi some comfort, India’s hawkish establishment continues to support the development of a nuclear deterrence, partly in an effort to command greater international respect. Pakistan suffers from a number of economic problems, but its hawks refuse to accept the view that economic weakness is a good enough reason to compromise the country’s nuclear program by signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which seeks to ban nuclear tests.
Finally, India and Pakistan, two countries with a collective population of more than a billion people, find themselves facing different political challenges that could shape their own futures as well as their relations with the international community. India, once again under the rule of a coalition government, has found itself struggling to find stable political groupings at the center, especially as regional political parties continue to gather strength. In contrast, Pakistan is once again under military rule following a decade of civilian rule that failed to provide political and economic stability.
Greater international involvement in South Asia at a time of changing political landscape could create opportunities to make contact with emerging new players. Even in Pakistan there remain important political players who are likely to take charge in years to come as military rule cannot be sustained indefinitely. If the international community can even moderately nudge India and Pakistan toward peace, anxieties over a nuclear exchange may be ameliorated.
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