Last month’s talks between Pakistan and India on conventional and nuclear confidence building measures lived up to the low expectations both sides attached to the meeting. This was apparent from the anodyne statement issued in New Delhi after the experts-level dialogue on 27-28 December 2012 held under the agenda item Peace and Security — one of the eight issues in the composite dialogue.

Since the bilateral dialogue resumed over two years ago there has been no movement on “hard” issues and disputes, even as progress has been made in the “soft” areas of trade and people-to-people contacts.

This raises a number of questions. Can a positive economic trajectory in relations be sustained without any movement on “hard” issues? If contentious issues are left unaddressed will this not risk a reversal in the normalisation process?

The sixth and seventh round of talks on conventional and nuclear Continental Ballistic Missiles (CBMs) respectively indicated the continuing difficulties of making progress in the security area on issues aimed at escalation avoidance and conflict prevention. The talks largely mimicked the last round of December 2011. The previous meeting did however yield a modest outcome — agreement to extend the 2007 accord on “Reducing the Risk from Accidents Relating to Nuclear Weapons” for another five years. This round produced nothing.

This does not mean any shortage of proposals that were deliberated. On nuclear issues, the Indian side has been keen to exhaust what it sees as unfinished aspects of the 1999 Lahore process. But Islamabad’s preference has been to press for more comprehensive conventional and nuclear restraint measures.

The New Delhi round saw the two delegations reiterate these differing areas of emphasis. There was more conversation than convergence on how to move forward. While the importance of exchanges that help both sides better understand each other’s strategic thinking should not be minimised, this sets too modest a goal.

The New Delhi talks took up a broad menu of conventional CBM proposals. The most edifying discussions were on a measure that has worked well for nearly a decade: the 2003 ceasefire on the Line of Control in Kashmir. Given mutual complaints about its post-2008 observance the talks produced a consensus on checking future violations by both sides. This has added importance in the wake of last week’s exchange of fire in the Haji Pir sector. There was no movement on the proposal relating to notification of military exercises. Pakistan has long seen the existing CBM as setting too high a bar on military movements. To mitigate the risks of escalation from India’s new proactive military doctrines Islamabad wants this CBM to extend to smaller sized military exercises near the border. This elicited no agreement. For their part, Indian officials retabled the proposal for exchange of visits between defence institutions of both countries. Islamabad demurred on this.

The nuclear dialogue also broke no new ground. To Pakistan’s proposal for a Strategic Restraint Regime, Indian officials reiterated their well-known position — rejecting any linkage between nuclear and conventional military issues. Pakistani officials called for the three “unexceptionable” elements of this interlocking concept — conventional military balance, nuclear restraint and resolution of disputes — to be fleshed out in future discussions. This was met by the Indian insistence that its defence strategy went beyond Pakistan — an indirect reference to China. When Pakistani officials pointed that over 70% of India’s military assets were deployed against Pakistan, this evoked emphatic Indian denials.

Pakistan’s proposal on non-deployment of anti-ballistic missiles as a means to preserve deterrence stability got no traction. The Indian emphasis was on discussing nuclear doctrines as stipulated in the 1999 Lahore Declaration. They were also eager to implement another provision of the MOU signed in 1999 — bilateral consultations on the sidelines of multilateral disarmament negotiations. Pakistani officials said there was no need to formalise what took place as a matter of course at these forums. Discussion of nuclear issues on the international agenda, chiefly the Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty (FMCT), laid bare another gap. Indian officials reasserted support for early commencement of FMCT negotiations. The Pakistani side said that as currently envisaged, the treaty was discriminatory and would freeze the regional imbalance to Pakistan’s permanent strategic disadvantage. Despite these differences it is important for both countries to continue the endeavour to achieve meaningful CBMs. Ultimately the success of the peace process will depend on their ability to deal with issues that lie at the heart of their divergences.

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