The fact that Pakistan made a U-turn on opening trade with India under internal pressure indicates the fragile nature of its peace overture.

Barely two months ago, India was facing a two-front threat from two of its neighbours. An unexpected sequence of events followed and much to the surprise of many people on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC), the re-implementation of the Ceasefire Agreement of 2003, was announced by both DGMOs. The “let us bury the past” remark of General Qamar Bajwa, followed by pleasant exchanges on “conditional peace” by both Prime Ministers and Pakistan’s announcement to reopen trade with India, and then a quick U-turn, made all strategists revisit reasons for such gestures.
India-Pakistan relations depend on a variety of factors arising out of the legacy of the partition of British India, accession of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to India, forced illegal occupation of parts of J&K by Pakistan, followed by a series of wars fought by the two countries. The humiliating defeat in 1971 and independence of Bangladesh left permanent humiliation in the military-led hierarchy of Pakistan, which turned towards religious fundamentalism under the late President Zia-ul Haq, determined “to bleed India with a thousand cuts”. Nuclear weapons acquisition and fostering terror as a weapon for waging proxy war against India, with focus on Kashmir, remained the single aim of the Pakistan military, as a recipe to hold all levers of power, with former President Pervez Musharraf calling terrorists as strategic assets and propagating India as an “existential threat”. Neither the aim nor the focus of Pakistan has changed; hence its peace gesture must be decoded and analysed.

Economic stress faced by Pakistan seems to be the most important reason for Pakistan to seek peace with India. Pakistan’s Kashmir obsession has led to over expenditure in misadventures by its army, pushing the country into a well-planned debt trap by China, besides picking up loans from many other countries and institutions, which it finds difficult to service. Pakistan’s total external debt and liabilities rose to $113.8 billion in fiscal year 2020, and it had to pay approximately $12 billion that year to service it. As other countries and monetary organizations ask for payback, Pakistan has no choice but to mortgage its sovereignty to China (which has loaned the maximum), looking to gain territory, assets, resources and electricity, thus making it a colony of China.
The continued grey listing of Pakistan by Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has further added to its economic stress, shortage of foreign exchange, and borrowings beyond capacity, leading to internal dissent, chaos and inadequate survival needs like food and water for the people. It has thrown up intense political opposition like Peoples Democratic Movement (PDM), adding political cost to its misadventure. The growing influence of jihadis and dissension of the persecuted minorities are adding to internal disturbance, with the army also getting its fair share of public anger. It, therefore, makes perfect sense for Pakistan to get into a temporary truce with India, reduce some of its expenses on LoC and repair its economy, before returning to business as usual on Kashmir.

Pakistan has tried to internationalise the Kashmir issue in every possible forum and found itself isolated, with nobody except China and Turkey standing by its cause. It also brought Pakistan into awkward relationships with the Arab world. In fact, Saudi Arabia and UAE asking for their loan back from Pakistan came as a rude shock to it. Pakistan has therefore realised that India bashing is not helping its domestic sustenance, and it needs to reset its international relations to pull itself out of the financial crisis in the post pandemic world. Pakistan, therefore, seems to be quite keen on fast-tracking trade relations with India, quickly announcing some imports from India, notwithstanding political opposition to it. The engagement of US and allies with India, their intense competitive relations with China and frequent criticism of sponsoring of terrorists by Pakistan can also be seen as a factor for reset, although a minor one.

With some authentic voices in India indicating its intention to reclaim its lost territory, the thought process in the Pakistani military seems to have undergone a slight modification. The abrogation of Article 370 by India in J&K, certain proactive Indian responses like surgical strikes, Balakot strike, and existing relative peace in Kashmir, have convinced Pakistan that its aim of annexation of Kashmir is unviable against the military might of India, although it will continue to talk of the reversal of the autonomous status of Kashmir. The Pakistan army has now pitched its tone to defend every inch of its territory, thereby adopting a defensive stance. It finds it more practical to prepare for not losing the part of J&K which is in its illegal possession. The changes in the status of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), making it a provisional province, demographic changes and Chinese presence in GB and POK to deter Indian actions, point towards that direction.

For China, Pakistan is a low-cost secondary deterrent/irritant to India, helpful in containing it. For Pakistan, China is a high value security guarantee and therefore the Sino-Pak nexus continues to grow strong. In that context, the rising number of Chinese nationals in such areas, their investments in critical infrastructure development in terms of airstrips, roads in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) and GB is a concern for India. Pakistan is likely to continue with its proxy war in the Kashmir Valley, through terrorism, as a low cost option, as it serves the interest of the two countries.
Pakistan continues to be in illegal occupation of POK, GB, Shaksgam Valley. Therefore, Indian sovereign territory is yet to be restored; hence the possibilities of a long-lasting peace is a mirage. The CPEC, infrastructure development works in POK and GB, along with a change of demography in Indian territory, is something which the optics of peace gestures cannot camouflage.
The kind of peace offers made by India and Pakistan clearly indicates that both sides are not ready to compromise their basic positions. Pakistan continues to link a peace initiative with discussions on Kashmir, whereas India may not be keen to get into meaningful discussions, unless Pakistan shows some visible efforts in dismantling its terror infrastructure and bringing perpetrators of terror to justice like Hafiz Saeed and Maulana Masood Azhar.

The fact that Pakistan made a U-turn on opening trade with India within 24 hours of the announcement under internal pressure indicates the fragile nature of its peace gesture, and the level of internal pressure in Pakistan in relation to Kashmir. The irritants and differences between Pakistan and India have not undergone any major changes. The peace gestures are good optics to buy some more time for economic revival, avoid distractions in combating the pandemic, and reduce the level of internal public dissent to some degree. It is in the interest of both countries that the ceasefire continues to remain in vogue, so that the innocent people residing on both sides of the LOC can have a peaceful life.
India should not fall into the trap of peaceful gestures that camouflage the capacity building of terrorists, the build-up of the Chinese in Pakistan, and the much needed economic revival of Pakistan, at the cost of taking a break from the Indian threat. The fact that Pakistan’s decision making is dependent on China is a factor which Indian decision-makers will have to take into account before any talk about any peace initiative with Pakistan. While gestures of peace are essential for vibrant diplomacy, but they have to be exercised with caution, as such gestures with Pakistan in past have resulted in betrayal; and now the factor of trust deficit with China also adds to the equation. While everyone will hope that the ceasefire lasts, but India cannot afford to slow down its efforts on capacity building to face the twin challenges, because one major terror attack can change the entire equation overnight.
The views expressed are the personal views of the author, who retains the copyright. Major General S.B. Aasthana is a retired Army officer.