India, Pakistan detente: don’t trust, verify every step

April 28, 2012

It’s clear for some time now that India and Pakistan are on the cusp of the kind of open  trade relationship they had until the 1965 war when all business links were snapped, border trading posts shut and overland Indian access to Afghanistan blocked. It was never to be the same again, despite fitful progress over the years.

On Saturday, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has invested a great deal of personal credibility in a rapprochement with Pakistan, inaugurates a  $4 billion refinery in the northern state of Punjab , not far from the border with Pakistan. While   the bulk of the refinery, which is a joint venture between billionaire Lakshmi Mittal and an Indian state oil company will feed the hungry energy markets of India’s booming northern triangle, it stands to reason that some of the fuel sales will flow westwards, to Pakistan. The distance from Bhatinda where the 9 million tonne refinery is located to Pakistan’s heartland city of Lahore is about 100 miles.  If you don’t sell it to the market next door where else would you begin from ?  Pakistan’s refining capacity is half the domestic demand and last year it opened up diesel imports from India, although petrol and other petroleum products are still on a rapidly dwindling negative list.

If they begin piping fuel from the plant in Bhatinda to the Pakistani part of Punjab, and down the coast in Gujarat, if Reliance Industries’ huge refining complex in Jamnagar ships products to Karachi, you can imagine the game-changing effects of such interlocking economic stakes. Next up will be the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline which has been hobbled not just by security fears in Afghanistan, but the deep distrust between India and Pakistan, the two big markets at the far end of the pipe.   If Pakistan can buy refined fuel products from India, then perhaps New Delhi will have less fears about being held to ransom by Pakistani shutting off its natural gas supplies traversing through Pakistan soil.

Are the two over the hump then, ready to bury 65 years of hostility ? Not quite, going by an opposing series of actions.  India fired off its longest range missile this month which scientists said gives it the capability to launch inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and within days Pakistan tested its own long range nuclear capable missile. While India can argue that the 5,000 km range Agni V was  aimed at closing the deterrence gap with China, Pakistan’s Shaheen missile which defence experts say  is capable of hitting targets 2,500 km away brings virtually all of India in its range.  You could ask why does Pakistan need long range missiles when it can target Delhi which is barely 700 kms from Islamabad. Presumably the idea is to negate India’s strategic depth that Pakistan does not have. Then there is a steady Indian conventional arms buildup in line with its growing economy, and again, to find some level of parity with China. But some of that armour  including  state-of-the-art Rafale fighter planes, an aircraft carrier and nuclear-powered submarines could just as well be deployed on the west.

There is similarly little forward movement on the hot-button territorial disputes that have kept the two countries apart .  Last month’s tragic accident in Siachen in northern Kashmir where 138 Pakistani soldiers and civilians were buried   in rock and ice brought the focus back on a remote high altitude battlefield that many believe is best left untouched, given its questionable strategic value.  Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, responding to calls from anguished countrymen, said the civilian and military leaders of the two countries should hold talks to resolve the brutal standoff in the icy mountains.  But the general’s call has met with a measured response from New Delhi which wants the positions of the two armies to be authenticated before considering a withdrawal from the remote area. This along with the row over Sir Creek off the Arabian Sea was considered a low-hanging fruit which the two sides could pluck before tackling the dispute over Kashmir, really at the core of the decades of hostility.

But distrust has only deepened over the years, and as Vikram Sood former head of India’s external intelligence agency wrote recently, Pakistan’s refusal to accept the actual positions of the troops – in which India holds the advantage – only sows suspicion in the Indian mind that should there be a withdrawal from the Saltoro heights, Pakistan would “want to alter the position at first dawn.” It would be another folly on the lines of returning 90,000 prisoners and territory sezied from Pakistan after the 1971 war without permanently resolving disputes with the country, he says.

Looked at from Pakistan’s point of view, it sees a hardening of the Indian position. Maleeha Lodhi, former Pakistan ambassador to the United States, says Delhi in the last rounds of talks called for delineation of the line of control that runs through Kashmir and stops way short of Siachen -the remote uninhabited wasteland nobody had much interest in at the time –  before disengagement and redeployment. Now that would mean demilitarisation would have to wait a long while given how complicated and difficult talks on delineating the frontier can  be.  Pakistan, basically sees the Indian insistence on marking down the positions of the two armies as the Indian military’s way to resist giving up control of the heights, she says.

It’s quite remarkable then that in the face of such deep and unremitting distrust the two sides are moving resolutely ahead to build economic relations. Perhaps there is a China model here in which India and China have embarked on a booming trade relationship while making little progress on their border dispute that dates back to the 1962 war. The difference here though is that unlike ties with China which have always seemed distant beyond the Himalayan border, India’s relationship with Pakistan has long been emotional, swinging from extreme hostility to exuberance and bonhomie between two long-lost brothers.

Anything can still go wrong as they rebuild trade ties which existed after the 1947 Partition of the subcontinent and the war immediately afterwards because of the sheer interlocking nature of the two economies such as Punjab where Singh is visiting on Saturday. Indeed according to Indian intelligence, men with links to the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, have been looking at the refinery in Bhatinda and the Reliance complex in Gujarat as two potential targets.,Quite interesting these are the very two refineries the two countries are considering as the launchpad of the pipelines of peace.











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