Tue, Jul 15, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Indo-Pakistan relations may see a new dawn

By Rani Singh  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Has a new dawn broken over Indo-Pakistan relations? At the recent meeting in London of the Commonwealth Games Federation, Islamabad -- in the first overt move in recent years to support India publicly on any issue -- backed New Delhi's bid to host the Games in seven years time.

The Commonwealth Games have never been held in any South Asian or South-East Asian country and the sub-continent is in with a real chance, since the contest to host the 2010 event is now a two-horse race between New Delhi and the city of Hamilton on the shores of Lake Ontario, in Canada.

Reading the runes, Vijay Malhotra, a government minister and president of All India Sports, said Pakistan's support was appreciable.

"It's a renewed sign of the unity of the Indian sub-continent against the West," he said and then, putting it into context, he added: "at least in terms of hosting Commonwealth Games."

But observers of the Asian political chessboard sense that the West is actually engineering this unity towards an endgame of its own.

Leverage seems to be what it is all about. For good or ill, Sept. 11 put Pakistan at the very center of Washington's new world order campaign against terrorism, al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad was not slow in trying to capitalize on this geographical coincidence. He saw a chance to use his country's strategic position to help reduce its US$4.5 billion debt. He got his way: in return for helping the allies, he was promised US$3 billion dollars in aid.

But US support has not been without conditions -- however obliquely expressed. As Selig Harrison wrote recently in the Boston Globe, the White House has indicated that economic life support to Musharraf and his generals may be helped along by the reduction of hostilities between Pakistan and India on the vexed issue of Kashmir.

India and Pakistan have already been to war over the disputed territory and, after an attack on India's parliament in 2001 -- which India blamed on Pakistan-based Kashmir separatists -- the two countries cut transport links, downgraded diplomatic relations and massed their respective armies along their shared border. But the stakes are much, much higher, as the US well knows, since both India and Pakistan have carried out missile tests; for both countries, and the world, the nuclear option remains a gloomy possibility.

But for the moment Islamabad has got the message and last month Musharraf made a statement in Washington acknowledging that he would do his very best to stop cross-border incidents with India.

So, rather than a new dawn, perhaps Pakistan's public support for New Delhi's bid for the 2010 Games might be part of a wider warming and thawing of relations between the two powers -- in part orchestrated by the Americans. Islamabad and New Delhi are currently restoring full diplomatic links by sending ambassadors into each other's capitals while India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, in an historic speech in Indian Kashmir earlier this year, offered Pakistan `the hand of friendship' and said he would make a final bid for peace with Islamabad in his lifetime.

Of course the US wants stability in South Asia. It has pledged US$3 billion dollars in aid to Pakistan and US$100 million to assist educational reforms there but has refused to sell new F-16 fighter jets to Musharraf. While Washington wants to see regional tension reduced and is anxious to assert some control over the nuclear weapons environment locally, the White House also realizes the importance of establishing economic and political ties. So, when US President George W. Bush and US National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice met the Indian Deputy Prime Minister L.K.Advani in Washington last month, there were not only talks about security issues and the exchange of terrorism-related information, but also space, nuclear energy and trade co-operation.

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