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Editorial: Jaw-Jaw is better

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-06-26

Nations move on foreign policy issues only when it's in their self-interest. Timing is of exquisite importance. That is why the international community should appreciate the efforts being made by India and Pakistan to reach out to each other and develop confidence-building measures despite decades of distrust. Both mostly poor countries have recognized that their economic progress has long been hindered by their mutual animosity - mostly over Kashmir, which they both claim - since 1947, when they became independent. India, a nation of 1.1 billion people, spends 2.5 percent of its US$600 billion gross domestic product on defence, and Pakistan, with 150 million people, allocates 7 percent of its US$1.5 billion GDP to its coddled military. With the cohort of poverty growing in both nations, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh clearly want bilateral relations to improve, especially in trade (currently a paltry US$2 billion annually). Elected only last month, Dr Singh has given priority to a dialogue with Pakistan; officials from both countries have met twice in the last two weeks, agreeing to establish a "hot line" between their leaders to prevent a nuclear war. Their respective Foreign Secretaries are scheduled to confer this weekend in what's expected to be a prelude to a full-scale summit later this year between President Musharraf and Prime Minister Singh.

The international community fears that the two nuclear powers might act irresponsibly with their awesome weaponry, which is why the ongoing India-Pakistan talks offer reassurance to chancelleries around the world. But because everything in the Subcontinent moves at an especially slow pace - blame it on the searing heat, or on lethargic bureaucrats - it's necessary to be somewhat restrained about the prospects of a comprehensive peace between the two nations. "The necessary condition for peace between India and Pakistan is for Islamabad to bring a permanent halt to its support for the militants it continues to infiltrate into Jammu and Kashmir. If that were combined with a willingness to agree to the transformation of the Line of Control into an internationally recognized border, it would pave the way for a peaceful and productive relationship between India and Pakistan," says Mr Stephen J. Solarz, a former Member of the United States House of Representatives, who continues to be an influential figure in Washington. "The US can contribute to a solution along these lines by making it clear to Islamabad that we will not continue to conduct business as usual with a government that continues to support terrorist organizations and activities in Kashmir."

Be that as it may, what's happening on the diplomatic front between India and Pakistan clearly represents a step forward, not the least because of the timing involved. Prime Minister Singh needs a major foreign-policy issue to buttress his Congress-led government's contention that the new administration will be even more outward looking than its predecessor. With considerable tensions near his western borders - with Afghanistan and Iraq in a continued state of turmoil - President Musharraf surely welcomes initiatives to normalize relations with the giant state to the east. Pakistan's businessmen want increased sales of cotton, sugar and wheat. And Indians want to regularize the so-called underground trade - smuggling of some US$2 billion worth of scooters, machines and consumer goods into Pakistan each year. Scholars and artistes on both sides want more frequent cultural and academic exchanges. Sportsmen want to sustain the good will generated by India's successful cricket tour earlier this year. As Prof. Shri Prakash of Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi put it yesterday, even if things move slowly from here onwards, at least relations are unlikely to worsen between India and Pakistan.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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