Confidence Building Measures Between India-Pakistan: Hope for Bilateral Peace

Recent months have witnessed multiple headlines announcing ceasefire at the Line of Control (LoC), resumption of bilateral trade and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s de-escalation attempts by sending a good-will letter to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan. Given the heightened state of a bilateral tension in the wake of India’s August 5, 2019 decision and Balakot-Pulwama crisis, the surprising efforts of rapprochement may be called an attempt to dial down hostilities for establishing peace.

The history of Pakistan-India’s bilateral relations is full of conflicts and crises as many historical and political issues have strained the relations. In recent years, South Asia’s security landscape has become more complex. This is due to India’s security policy that encompasses the use of force to achieve larger strategic goals surpassing the national defence of regional states. Its intention to seek hegemony is reflected in its unilateral decision over Kashmir in August 2019, its policy of expansionism and recent military escalations.  India’s offensive action in Balakot exposes its aggressive posture to manipulate the risk of conventional war or missile attack. Also, Pakistan’s cautions and the international reports regarding prospects of India’s false flag operations or use of force against Pakistan further pose serious repercussions for the regional stability. Thus, in the midst of growing hostility, India-Pakistan efforts for the resumption of harmonious relations have taken the people in both countries by surprise.  However, rumours regarding the backchannel diplomacy among the government officials emerged, which were rejected by Pakistan and India. Nonetheless, prospects of backchannel diplomacy and recent rapprochement call for structured procedures to abate tensions between two nuclear-weapon states.

Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) are such formal procedures and agreements, which would help accelerate a peace process in the region. They can be employed to build trust between India and Pakistan, resultantly averting the chances of conflict escalation or help in concluding a peace agreement. By effective restoration of CBMs, both states will be able to take their decisions more confidently in a less hostile and more stable environment. A formal dialogue process is indispensable to avoid or resolve doubts to build trust and prevent escalation during a crisis. In addition, the CBMs may require the states to become more transparent about their military and political intent and military capabilities.

India’s attempts to establish a favourable strategic environment against the regional states may lead to more friction that would have critical implications for peacebuilding efforts or any prospects of CBMs. Within South Asia’s security landscape, a strategic partnership between India and the United States, Indian growing military modernisation, and attempts to achieve military superiority are key factors that are disturbing the prospects of coexistence. Likewise, India’s attempts to establish escalation dominance in 2019, its military assertiveness in the region, and actions driven by domestic political objectives present a complex situation for the developing communication channels.

India’s attempts to establish a favourable strategic environment against the regional states may lead to more friction that would have critical implications for peacebuilding efforts or any prospects of CBMs.

Subsequently, various factors create hurdles in establishing effective nuclear CBMs in South Asia. Most significantly, the trust deficit between India and Pakistan is the greatest obstacle for these formal communication links. Although CBMs provide an atmosphere for improving inter-state relations and establish mutual trust, some degree of trust is still necessary even before CBMs can be negotiated. Hence the existence of a limited level of confidence is an essential prerequisite for effectively pursuing the CBMs. However, in the light of their past experiences, both states always remain dubious of each other’s intentions and shape their policies accordingly.

Secondly, the territorial disputes of Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek also limit the effectiveness of CBMs between India and Pakistan. Especially India’s abrogation of Article 370 and 35A and introduction of new domicile laws further enhances the bilateral instability and disturbs the normalisation process. In addition, despite signing various agreements, both countries still face problems in settling their issues in the water domain. This further adds to the doubts regarding the future of any previous or ongoing pact or treaty signed between them. Then again, New Delhi’s recent military modernisation programme has triggered an arms race in the region. India’s quantitative and qualitative developments in conventional and strategic forces and offensive military policies have resulted in a security dilemma and may heighten hostility between the states. This race is further advancing the suspicion and antagonism, hence complicating the confidence-building process. Another significant barrier is that CBMs, once negotiated, are not tracked properly. So, a lack of constant and sustained effort in confidence-building is thus detrimental. The CBMs, once developed, should not only be adequately followed but also be expanded with time to get maximum gains.

Presently, there is a chance for further rapprochement as both states have agreed to cooperate on health-related issues with other countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Pakistani officials’ statements also reflect the country’s desire to maintain peaceful relations. Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa stated on February 02, 2021, “It is time to extend hand of peace in all directions. (sic)” Along with discussing the ideals of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence, Pakistan’s Army Chief emphasised the need for peaceful resolution of the Kashmir conflict according to the wishes of the Kashmiri people. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, also highlighted the significance of peace in response to the Indian counterpart’s letter. For Pakistan, “Kashmir remains central to meaningful engagement”, as stated on several occasions by Pakistani officials. The statements of government and military officials highlight Pakistan’s desire for the resolution of the Kashmir conflict and durable peace in the region.

The ongoing dynamics show the likelihood of a formal peace process between India and Pakistan. Even the small steps are a beacon of hope for both states. For instance, restoration of a ceasefire agreement, opening communication lines among the DGMOs at the LoC, developments on the Pakistan-India cricket front, and reports of the UAE mediation. Improved communication channels can facilitate resolving the strains during instants of crisis. Nevertheless, it is the right time for Pakistan and India to utilise the small openings to initiate formal discussions to evade misunderstandings, manage crises, and establish peace.

Asma Khalid

Asma Khalid is a Research Associate at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She is also a South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center.

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