In my view the really big news today is the growing rapprochement between Pakistan and India. On Tuesday, Pakistani PM Zafarullah Jamali put forth six steps to promote confidence-building between the two countries, “including immediate resumption of air, rail and bus links and exchange of high commissioners between the two countries” (Dawn). India says it will respond Wednesday, but is already getting its rail service ready for the change. Pakistan has also restored diplomatic relations with India and is thinking seriously about granting India Most Favored Nation status with regard to imports and exports.
The likelihood is that these peace moves have been pushed behind the scenes by the US, which gained enormous diplomatic authority through the successful Iraq war. I am not implying that they threatened anyone, only that Asian countries with small nuclear arsenals can only be nervous after what happened to Saddam. There seems also to be the hint of a carrot. Pakistan owed the US $3 billion before September 11. As a reward for allying with the US in the war on terror, the US has already forgiven about $1 bn. of that. The Pakistanis are asking that another $2 bn or so be forgiven. My guess is that the US is making such debt forgiveness dependent on progress in Indo-Pak peace.
Likewise, Pakistan’s offer to abolish its nuclear program if India will almost certainly comes as a result of pressure from the US. India rejected this idea out of hand, though. It seems to me that US security officials must hope this is a way to roll back the threat of nuclear holocaust in South Asia, through mutual relinquishment. The odd thing is that Pakistan has a greater need for these weapons strategically, having only one tenth of India’s population and an army half the size. Yet it is now proposing abolition. The problem is that India has the weapons not just for the Pakistan front but also as a deterrent to China, a much more powerful and important rival with whom India shares a border. So, the Indians may balk at this plan because of the China factor. Despite the fevered dreams of the American nationalist hawks, it seems to me a little unlikely that nuclear weapons can be gotten out of the hands of the Chinese.
The opening of transportation links between the two countries would exciting, if it happens. In the new, post-Soviet and post-Taliban Central Asia, this move raises the possibility of new overland trade routes between India and Uzbekistan, flowing through Pakistan and Afghanistan. The economies of all four (and the rest of Central Asia) could be enormously helped by this trade. Afghanistan has been pressing Pakistan for this move during the past year, and probably has lobbied Washington for it. The tolls on transhipped goods could be an important source of income for the Karzai government. India and Pakistan have long practiced economic boycotts on one another. Pakistan now seems willing to go to a free trade regime with India. It may as well, since the goods would just leak back in through Central Asia and Afghanistan, anyway. An India and a Pakistan that traded vigorously with one another might be far less belligerant.
The trade of Central Asia and South Asia hasn’t been this potentially important since the days of the Silk Road!