Though it is hard to firmly equate the Sino-American impasse after World War II with the issues bedeviling India and Pakistan, there is vernacular common to both standoffs. Accusations of terrorism, illegal occupation and foreign meddling defined the power grab in Indo-China and Korea then similar to how they underscore the Kashmir dispute today
While campaigning for last year’s national vote, Narendra Modi promised a “new chapter” in Indo-Pak history if he became India’s Prime Minister (PM). Instead, bilateral relations through his first year-and-a-half in office stuck to a prologue both fractious and pinned by testy cross-border rhetoric. All that has changed now, at least on the surface.
After Modi pleasantly surprised Pakistan by gatecrashing PM Nawaz Sharif’s birthday party on December 25, there is hope for a new era, or at least one that sidesteps divisive populism. Foreign secretary-level talks should begin on January 15 in Islamabad to roadmap a new composite dialogue on all outstanding issues, including Kashmir. That is good news, no matter how you spin it. Still, the dizzying speed of rapprochement has startled politicians and pundits alike in both countries. While cynicism abounds about the illusory nature of progress in making permanent peace and some compare PM Modi’s impromptu visit to a foreign policy smokescreen, January has historically been a good month for international statecraft.
On New Year’s Day 1979, The People’s Republic of China (PRC) established formal relations with the US after 30 years of friction and short-circuiting each other’s geopolitical agendas. From squaring off in Korea and Vietnam during the Cold War, China and the US now practice two-way trade valued at over half a trillion dollars. The takeaway here is that diplomacy is rarely a zero-sum game or linear in motion. Those outcomes are only possible through total war and outright conquest.
Though it is hard to firmly equate the Sino-American impasse after World War II with the issues bedeviling India and Pakistan, there is vernacular common to both standoffs. Accusations of terrorism, illegal occupation and foreign meddling defined the power grab in Indo-China and Korea then similar to how they underscore the Kashmir dispute today. To boot, Southeast Asia was a high stakes theatre in the global confrontation between the forces of communism and the supposed free world.
Detente, hence, was far more difficult between parties inhabiting opposite corners of culture and ideology, and combative about their world-views. In the US, for example, communism was synonymous with “un-American activities” for much of the 1950s and 60s and the McCarthy witch-hunts sought to purge communists from all strata of government and society. Conversely, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s plan for “peaceful coexistence” with the west greatly infuriated Chinese leader Mao Zedong, thereby triggering the Sino-Soviet split in 1962.
Indeed, China and the US were allies in World War II by merit of the former battling Japan’s occupation of Manchuria but no one foresaw a communist victory in the country’s civil war. Washington expected Chinese nationalists (Kuomintang) led by the charismatic General Chiang Kai-shek to trounce Mao’s ragtag army with US support, and China to emerge as a democratic nation helmed by the Christian Kai-shek. Little did the West realise that his popular appeal had tanked during the war because of the Kuomintang’s corrupt rule. Ordinary Chinese overwhelmingly sided with Mao and the communists forced Kai-shek off the mainland in 1949 to seek refuge on Formosa (Taiwan). The US still backed Kai-shek, hoping the rout was temporary, and awarded Taiwan a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) instead of the PRC.
It took a significant policy shift by US President Richard Nixon and diligent shuttle diplomacy by his National Security Advisor (NSA) Henry Kissinger to begin the process of detente with the PRC, which still took eight long years. Beginning in 1971, the US lifted its trade embargo on the mainland and sent a table tennis team to create an alternative, less adversarial media narrative about communist China.
The real game-changer was the US not using its veto in October that year when the UN granted the PRC formal entry, thereby replacing Taiwan on the permanent seat. With Pakistani President Yahya Khan as a conduit, the Sino-American deep freeze softened, leading to Nixon’s famous trip to China in February 1972, the first by a sitting US president. The resultant Shanghai Communiqué was also historic, whereby the US acknowledged for the first time that, “There is but one China and Taiwan is a part of China.” Undoubtedly, the Sino-Soviet split was a key lever in the US normalising relations with the PRC, but the Nixon-Kissinger combo also had perfect form and timing to take advantage of the situation. Defusing complex, long-drawn conflicts invariably requires a certain measure of luck.
Therefore, even if personal interests drive PM’s Modi and Sharif to resuscitate a left-for-dead peace process, what is the harm? At this point in our shared history, any event that nudges the conversation forward is a win-win for both countries. This latest attempt at rapprochement may end up being a mirage but it has to be better than no hope at all.
The writer is a freelance columnist and audio engineer based in Islamabad