Pakistan’s Dilemma: To Love or Hate Its Eastern Neighbour?

13 May 2021 Brigadier Saleem Qamar Butt (Rtd), FDI Associate Download PDF

The rapidly evolving geo-strategic environment of the Central Asia-South Asia and Indo-Pacific regions, global economic and military re-alignments and pressing domestic political-economic compulsions of both Pakistan and India have all contributed towards a projected Indo-Pakistani thaw. A factual appraisal of core national issues and the global, regional and domestic environments, and the selection of a favourable time and place to undertake such a resolution through far-sighted dialogue, remain undeniable imperatives.


Key Points

  • The rapidly evolving geo-strategic environment, with its regional and extra-regional actors drawing up new battle lines in Eurasia, the Central Asia-South Asia and Indo-Pacific regions, global economic and military re-alignments and pressing domestic political-economic compulsions of both Pakistan and India have all contributed towards a projected Indo-Pakistani thaw.
  • Since all disputes are best resolved through political determination and diplomacy, any direct or indirect effort to find peace through those means ought to be pursued. Nevertheless, a factual appraisal of the global, regional and domestic environments and the selection of a favourable time and place to undertake such a resolution through far-sighted dialogue remains an undeniable imperative.
  • The shifting of emphasis from geopolitics to geo-economics, as Pakistan’s foreign office recently stated, must not imply a compromise on core national issues. In contrast to the illusionary and academic peace hypotheses, realpolitik dictates that Pakistan’s dilemma as to whether to love or hate India is bound to remain until the latter is genuinely interested in peace.



The news that a hotline between the Army Directors-General of Military Operations of Pakistan and India has been established, the announcement of a ceasefire along the Line of Control (the de facto boundary between the two countries) and the working boundary on 25 February 2021, and the selective editing of the Pakistan Army Chief on 18 March statement, ‘Let’s bury the past and move forward’, without its preceding and succeeding context (i.e. to fully utilise the economic potential of the region and resolve the Kashmir issue peacefully), was hyped intensively by the media, which led to much speculation and interpretation. The credit for this change of tone from the usual aggression from both sides was brought about by the mediatory efforts of the United Arab Emirates, likely urged on by the USA.

While the usual pointless denials of secret meetings between the two sides were being offered, a letter from Indian Prime Minister Modi was sent to his counterpart, Mr Imran Khan, wishing him and the people of Pakistan well on the occasion of Pakistan Day on 23 March, which Pakistan promptly reciprocated. Then came a meeting on the Indus Water Treaty in New Delhi, which was more cosmetic in nature. It led to conjecture about the possibility of Indian troops participating in joint drills by Shanghai Co-operation Organisation countries organised by Pakistan and the renewal of the SAARC Summit to be held in Islamabad that Mr Modi might attend. Then a surprising announcement was made by Pakistan’s Economic Co-ordination Committee that it would import cotton and sugar from India. These sudden and rapid developments were given wide media coverage in Pakistan and abroad and sooner, rather than later, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and its foreign office had to dispel the rumours created around Pakistan’s principled stance on the resolution of the Kashmir issue; obviously, due to the political heat generated domestically. Some assumptions have already been denied and others may be expected to be soon.



It is necessary to review the causes of the events noted above, especially in the backdrop of some significant developments during 2019, which was considered a pivotal year for Kashmir. The clashes between the two countries in February of that year, India’s 5 August decision to abrogate Article 35A and Article 370 of its Constitution that pertained to the special status accorded by them to Kashmir, the division of Indian-administered Kashmir into two Union Territories that are administered directly by New Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, and removing its special status by enabling Indians to settle in those territories in order to modify the existing Muslim-majority demography, the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, which were perceived by many to specifically target and act against Muslims in India, the establishment of colonies for Sainik or retired Indian military personnel, the establishment of industrial zones in Kashmir that enabled Indian industrialists to begin operations there, and locking Kashmir down to suppress the freedom struggle that compelled Prime Minister Imran Khan’s passionate speech at the United Nations General Assembly. Rapidly-evolving regional and extra regional geo-strategic factors, the potential battle lines in Eurasia being created across the Central Asia-South Asia (CASA) and Indo-Pacific regions, global economic and military realignments and pressing domestic political-economic compulsions of both Pakistan and India have all contributed towards a perceived thaw in the Indo-Pakistani relationship.

The United States is moving towards maintaining a focus on China as its primary economic and military competitor while simultaneously keeping an effective check on its hegemonic rival, Russia. In order to accomplish that goal, Washington’s first priority is the realisation of its Indo-Pacific strategy through a Quadrilateral Dialogue, a group of regional democracies – India, Japan and Australia – that it seeks to lead and which has the potential to become an Indo-Pacific version of NATO. That nascent alliance could later include countries like the UK, France, South Korea and the Philippines, while keeping other regional countries aligned with the grouping. Therefore, the US would like India to be unhooked from Pakistan to allow New Delhi to focus on challenging China, which has recently embarrassed India politically and militarily. Also, the US expects India as a new strategic partner to help it maintain its influence in Afghanistan and, by extension, in Central Asia. This is an optimal situation for India, especially if it settles Kashmir in accordance with its strategic goals regarding direct access to Central Asia, including Afghanistan.

China considers the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) a flagship project of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s legacy Belt-Road Initiative (BRI), which essentially aims for regional and global economic integration. Therefore, any major conflict between Pakistan and India is bound to not only retard the success of the CPEC but may also dilute the chances of India and other regional countries ultimately joining the BRI for mutual economic dividends. Hence, China would also like and support a rapprochement between Pakistan and India, although with necessary safeguard to thwart the US’s aims and objectives. As regards its borders dispute with India, China has just proven its resolve and capability to settle it on own terms but without losing focus on BRI and with overall emphasis on its economic thrust, thereby proving that it can attain the status of the leading global economic power.

Russia is already effectively countering US and its allies and reasserting itself in Eurasia and the CASA region. Despite India becoming a strategic partner and member of the Quad grouping to Moscow’s dismay, Indian and Russian economic and military co-operation remains upbeat. Any Indian effort to help solidify American influence or its military presence in the CASA region, however, is unlikely to meet with Moscow’s approval. The recent visit of the Russian Foreign Minister to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and his announcement of Russia’s economic and military co-operation with Pakistan, together with its interest in working with Pakistan in countering terrorism and bringing peace to Afghanistan is evidence of  shifting geo-political and strategic preferences and priorities. Since any future conflict between Pakistan and India is detrimental to regional peace and development with adverse impact on Russia as well, reducing the tension between India and Pakistan comforts Moscow too.

India has a plethora of political, economic and security problems, mostly aggravated by Mr Modi’s BJP regime fanning RSS extremist Hindutva ideology: declining economic growth, atrocities being perpetrated by security forces in Jammu and Kashmir, the gross human rights violations and maltreatment of minorities that have led to international protests, the farmers’ revolution joined by other oppressed millions, more than a dozen active independence movements, rampant corruption, the political-military embarrassment suffered from China’s actions in Ladakh and, after assurance by both Russia and America for a due role and space in Afghanistan, the enhanced pressure by the US to mend fences with Pakistan and focus on contesting China appear to have convinced India to indulge in unyielding cosmetic dialogue with Pakistan from a perceived position of strength.

Pakistan’s agreement to conduct secret discussions with India could have been at the behest of the US and a few other countries, which led to the impression of a knee-jerk decision towards rapprochement, and detrimental to its core strategic issues such as the Kashmir dispute and its independence movement and the outcome of peace efforts in Afghanistan. The reasons for these backdoor negotiations need to be examined, no matter how well-intentioned they might have been. The history of the Indo-Pakistani disputes – four major conflicts and secret and public diplomacy – and their outcomes are well known. It must also be borne in mind that the current situation has a precedent, which suggests that it must be approached cautiously. After signing a peace treaty with Pakistan on 4 January 2004, which created similar excitement on a possible resolution of the core disputed issues, and in the period that followed, India used the time gained to further consolidate its hold on Jammu and Kashmir.

Ultimately, all disputes are resolved through political determination and diplomacy. Nevertheless, deliberate appraisals of the global, regional and domestic environments and the selection of a favourable time and place to undertake such resolution remains an undeniable imperative. To accomplish that, after due debate in both houses of Parliament and with due government approval, an institutional approach would likely be more productive in engendering multi-tracked engagement between belligerents like India and Pakistan. It may be advisable to first undertake a government-approved Track-2 approach, for which the use of Afghanistan to create a serious security situation in Pakistan and the restoration of pre-August 2019 status in Jammu and Kashmir should be a pre-requisite, to pave the way for Track-1 diplomacy by agreeing on the framework and formulae for resolution of the critical issues, rather than putting the cart before the horse as the secret discussions appear to have done.

Besides, a few important questions must be asked: Is the RSS/BJP ready to commit political suicide now that it has won two consecutive elections by raising anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim fears? Is Pakistan, with its own house in disorder, in a good position to indulge in dialogue with India at this point in time? Will the American push for dialogue between India and Pakistan earn Pakistan any advantage in the UN Security Council for implementation of a plebiscite in Kashmir? Can any country other than Pakistan prevent India from launching proxies from Afghanistan against Pakistan? Pakistan will have to be extremely careful in using a carrot and stick approach to India. That would obviously hinge on meaningless economic incentives or coercion by international financial institutions and money-lending countries. The shift in emphasis from geopolitics to geo-economics, as Pakistan’s Foreign Office recently stated, should not compromise core national issues. In contrast to illusionary and academic peace hypotheses, realpolitik dictates that the dilemma as to whether Pakistan ought to love or hate its eastern neighbour is bound to stay in place until the latter is genuinely interested in peace.



About the Author

Now retired from the military, Brigadier Saleem Qamar Butt is a Geostrategic Analyst for the Pakistan Television Network and, as a freelance writer, has been published by the Daily Times, The Nation, Business News Pakistan, South Asia Pulse and South Asia Magazine.

In his military career, he commanded an infantry regiment along the Line of Control during an active conflict period, served as Chief of Operational Staff in a Corps headquarters operating along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and participated in the planning and execution of medium- and large-scale anti-terror operations. He has also served as an instructor in the School of Infantry and Tactics and Directing Staff at the Command and Staff College in Quetta, and as Pakistan’s Defence Attaché to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. From 2010 to 2017, he served as Deputy Director-General, Strategic Analysis for the Government of Pakistan. In March 2020, he was selected as one of the four-member group advising Prime Minister Imran Khan on foreign relations with the United States.

Brig. Butt has a Master’s Degree in International Relations and an MSc in Defence and Warfare Studies. He has an Executive Diploma in Project Management and has studied Arabic, Japanese and Russian.

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