J.P. Donleavy used to be a popular author. He made a big splash with The Ginger Man, but many readers lost interest when it became apparent in The Saddest Summer of Samuel S and The Onion Eaters, that he kept writing the same book. Donleavy comes to mind when following efforts over the past two decades by Pakistani and Indian diplomats to negotiate confidence-building and nuclear risk-reduction measures.
Existing measures, such as prior notifications for certain military exercises and ballistic missile flight tests, have been useful, but regrettably sparse. The Stimson Center and others helped midwife these CBMs in the 1990s, thinking they would lead to progressively more ambitious and stabilizing measures. Instead, the process of negotiating CBMs has been like peeling an onion, one thin layer at a time. Diplomatic onion peelers have viewed these CBMs as devices to alleviate external pressures after a crisis, as trading material, or as add-ons when bigger issues, like Kashmir, are properly dealt with. If authorities in India and Pakistan had viewed CBMs as worthwhile steps in and of themselves, a cruise missile flight test notification agreement and an incidents at sea agreement would have been negotiated long ago. Deals on a mutual withdrawal from the Siachen Glacier and a settlement of the Sir Creek dispute have also been within grasp for many years.
An agreement to permanently demilitarize Siachen, home of the world’s most senseless and elevated forward deployments, appears stuck because Indian negotiators have heretofore insisted on, and Pakistani negotiators have rejected, recognizing in some fashion the positions seized by the Indian Army in 1984.
Michael Krepon, reputed in the US as an expert on South Asian security affairs, has spearheaded The Henry L Stimson Center’s initiative to foster confidence-building and nuclear risk-reduction measures between India and Pakistan. This piece is a symptom of the author’s frustration at his inability to influence these two countries to resolve their disputes along lines he has been suggesting for over a decade.
His interpretation of security issues on the sub-continent is typically that as viewed through an American prism. The failure to forget the propensity of the US and its Western allies to go viral if they perceive any infringement of their “National Interests” lends itself to obfuscation of the “National Interests” that South Asian Governments perceive to be critical to their national being, by dazzling the reader with similes such as ‘onion fumes’. These countries have as much right to go viral when these are perceived to be threatened as the US does in its case.
The conclusion that the military deployments by India and Pakistan in Siachen are “the world’s most senseless and elevated forward deployments”, suggests that the author either lacks a comprehensive understanding of all the factors that have brought about this situation, or he chooses to ignore those that do not support his thesis.
His ‘onion peels’ gimmick may have made sense if he had taken time out to view Sub-continental security holistically. He focuses singularly on the India-Pak dispute exclusive of other related issues. His argument fails to address the complexities of the Sino-Indian dispute in the Aksai Chin region combined with the Indo-Pak imbroglio over the erstwhile J&K, and the ceding of the Shaksgam valley by Pakistan to China. The trilateral implications of military deployments in that region and its resolution have implications beyond Islamabad and New Delhi.
Furthermore, it’s not a question of material gains or the altitude at which the disputed area lies, so looking for these is going up a blind alley. It’s a matter of territorial sovereignty and looking at and dealing with ongoing and related disputes concerning three sovereign states, wherein actions and responses to process bilateral negotiations generate a ripple effect that bears on a ‘third party’.
Political leaders in Islamabad, New Delhi and Beijing are no less responsible to safeguard the sovereign rights of their peoples than the President of the USA is to his people.
The strategic ramifications of Siachen to India are decided in New Delhi/Islamabad/Beijing and are exclusive of the perceptions aired by think tanks in Washington