A South Asian grand bargain

India and the US have direct, yet different, interests in restoring peace and order to the regional neighbourhood.

Indian PM
The US plans to leave Afghanistan, and must reach an agreement with the powerful countries in the region [GALLO/GETTY]

New Delhi, India – South Asia is riddled with multiple antagonisms and mutual suspicions. India mistrusts Pakistan and vice versa. Afghanistan and Pakistan are at loggerheads. On the sidelines, China, Iran and Russia look to Afghanistan for opportunities to help themselves and crimp the United States. US officials, meanwhile, are preparing to retreat from a decade of war in the Afghan hills and valleys.

Given all of these rivalries, I believe that the only path to regional peace and stability runs not through incremental agreements, but through a “grand accord” that reconciles all of the powers’ deepest national-security interests. But is such an accord feasible?

On the surface, one would not think so. US-Pakistan relations have turned poisonous, with blunt statements proliferating from both governments. In Istanbul, a recent gathering of Afghanistan’s concerned “neighbours” produced only a rather anodyne statement in preparation for a meeting in Bonn later this year.

When confronted by such a diplomatic snarl, there are, in reality, only two options: either allow the disputes to boil in their own cauldrons, or lower the temperature on all of the region’s antagonisms before a cataclysmic explosion occurs. Clearly, today’s frozen regional diplomacy must end; far too much of global importance is at stake.

India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US form a rectangle of relationships in South Asia, with India, China and the US constituting a triangle that not only contains the South Asia region, but is also a major theatre in an increasingly global struggle. The emerging geopolitical centrality of the Indian Ocean, through which an ever-increasing share of world trade passes, is a third, complicating, factor.

Untangling this web, and imparting to it a co-operative order, should be high on the agenda of all countries involved. Consider India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US. Can these relationships be transformed into anything resembling a co-operative effort?

To be sure, US-Pakistani relations now appear at an all-time low. Bitter congressional testimony by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen about Pakistani perfidy in supporting terrorism deepened suspicion on both sides, which a high-profile visit to Islamabad by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did little to ameliorate. On the contrary, Hillary reiterated an earlier warning to Pakistan against keeping “snakes in the backyard”.

Not surprisingly, Pakistan has reacted angrily to such statements; they are also alarmed. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief, cautioned the US against intervening in the terrorist bastion of North Waziristan. “The US must think ten times” before doing so, he said. General Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, went further, warning the US of the “dangers of a third world war”.

Amid this turmoil came the assassination of the Afghan government’s chief peace negotiator with the Taliban, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Soon after, an outraged President Hamid Karzai signed a “strategic partnership” agreement with India (though he added, as a placatory afterthought, that “Pakistan is our twin brother”).

Long wars can end in one of three ways: unconditional surrender and an imposed peace; a conditional settlement, such as in Korea or Vietnam; or a diplomatic solution that reconciles all of the concerned parties’ interests. If South Asia is to begin to build a future of peace and prosperity, the latter option is the only viable way forward.

Despite the blunt rhetoric and cold stares between the US and Pakistan, a parting of ways between the two is simply not feasible. The US is leaving Afghanistan, but without victory. So reaching some agreement with Pakistan, one that both India and Afghanistan can live with, is essential.

Both India and the US have a direct – albeit different – interest in restoring peace and order to the South Asian neighbourhood. As Robert Kaplan argues: “Stabilising Afghanistan is about much more than just the anti-terrorist war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban; it is about securing the future prosperity of the whole [region], as well as easing India and Pakistan toward peaceful co-existence through the sharing of energy routes.”

A comprehensive regional settlement, however, requires dealing with a wider circle of interests. Sino-Indian relations, in particular, can no longer be allowed to drift toward strategic antagonism. Yet that is where the bilateral relationship is headed, given China’s efforts to secure maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean.

China may reason that its naval build-up in the Indian Ocean is only about protecting sea lanes vital to shipping the resources that its economy needs. But others, such as India, are bound to see something more sinister afoot, an effort at encirclement. After all, military power is about its potential use, not the rationalisations for its existence.

With their burgeoning bilateral trade and shared commitment to eradicating poverty, both India and China have common cause to cooperate in creating a mutually acceptable geopolitical map of South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Of course, this is not to suggest that competition between India and China can or should cease. But their overlapping layers of commercial and political interests do offer hope for agreement – if the two governments seize the opportunity. Chinese assistance in encouraging Pakistan to reach agreement with India and the US on Afghanistan’s future is a good place to start, and will also benefit Chinese security by crimping the ability of terrorists to infiltrate China’s Xinxiang province from either Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Hillary recently offered a vision of a “strong, constructive relationship among India, the US and China”. She admitted, realistically, that building one will be difficult because “there are important matters on which we all disagree”. Yet she also pointed to “significant areas of common interest”, arguing that, “if we want to address, manage or solve some of the most pressing issues of the twenty-first century, India, China and the US will have to coordinate our … efforts”.  

The prospect of a grand accord for South Asia is before us. It is an idea whose time has come, because there is no longer an alternative path from conflict.

Jaswant Singh, a former Indian finance minister, foreign minister, and defence minister, is the author of Jinnah: India – Partition – Independence.

A version of this article was first published by Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.