One of the features of the Indo-Pakistani rivalry that receives little attention is the impressive array of bilateral confidence-building measures. Here Ryan French explains how such confidence-building measures could be strengthened to build trust and disincentivise armed conflict between the two countries.

Just a few months ago, the world held its breath as India and Pakistan exchanged blows from the skies above disputed Kashmir.  As news reports emerged that the nuclear-armed rivals had bombed one another’s territory, the specter of nuclear escalation became worryingly real.  The trigger for the crisis was an attack by a Pakistani terrorist outfit on India – a distressingly frequent event on the subcontinent.  The attack targeted a caravan of Indian paramilitary forces on a highway in Pulwama district, killing 40.  Complicating matters was the “tough on Pakistan” reputation cultivated by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi.  With elections fast approaching in April and May, Modi was obliged to inflict punishment on Pakistan and conclude hostilities on favourable terms.

Given the upward pressures for escalation, observers feared a catastrophic war could be in the offing. Ultimately, however, the enduring rivals managed to find an off-ramp from the burgeoning crisis. On 1 March, Islamabad repatriated an Indian pilot it had captured two days earlier after downing his MiG-21 over Pakistan-held Kashmir. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan described the move as a ‘peace gesture’ intended to ward off further escalation. Although tensions remained high post-handoff, with bellicose rhetoric by both sides, bilateral relations have returned to the tenuous peace that defined the previous status quo.

Confidence-building measures

One of the features of the Indo-Pakistani rivalry that received little attention during the crisis is the impressive array of bilateral confidence-building measures (CBMs) adopted by both countries. According to the late Indian statesman P.R. Chari, CBMs are ‘military and non-military initiatives undertaken by antagonistic states to reduce tensions and enhance mutual confidence.’ Standing agreements span many decades and include non-attack of nuclear facilities (1988); pre-notification of military exercises (1991) and ballistic missile flight tests (2005); non-violation of airspace (1991); non-harassment of diplomatic personnel (1992); crisis communication hotlines (1971 and 1989); and many more.

In retrospect, it is disappointing but unsurprising that the prevailing regime of Indo-Pakistani CBMs did little to curtail the Pulwama crisis.  After all, existing agreements are designed mainly to promote military transparency and avert miscalculation in peacetime – they cannot dissuade deliberate escalation by either side. This begs the question: is there a way to strengthen the existing book of CBMs to build bilateral trust and disincentivise armed conflict as a tool for political redress?

A new conceptual approach is warranted

To untie South Asia’s Gordian knot, a new conceptual approach toward CBMs is warranted. Fundamentally, two types of CBMs exist:  positive and negative. Positive CBMs are agreements to tangibly do something (e.g., prisoner exchanges, trade agreements, etc.), whereas negative CBMs are agreements that proscribe certain destabilizing actions (e.g., non-violation of airspace). In short, positive CBMs are useful for building trust by creating patterns of cross-border interaction, whereas negative CBMs promote overall stability. Thus, while positive CBMs insulate the relationship from shocks, negative CBMs aim to prevent those shocks in the first place. The majority of well-known Indo-Pakistani CBMs fall within the latter category.

Positive and negative CBMs

The distinction between positive and negative CBMs is a useful one, especially if one looks to theories on social psychology. Positive CBMs involve tangible, friendly actions, which invite reciprocity. Sustained reciprocity, in turn, can foster a ‘cooperation spiral’ that repairs mistrust and opens doors for new agreements. Negative CBMs, meanwhile, may not yield the same reciprocity, and can even exacerbate mistrust when the letter or spirit of the agreement is not honored – see, for instance, a 2015 incident in which Pakistan claimed to have shot down an Indian surveillance drone that crossed the Line of Control, in apparent violation of the 1991 airspace non-intrusion CBM.

Although reciprocity would seem unlikely for a relationship as fraught as India-Pakistan, there is evidence of this phenomenon in action. In 2007, India and Pakistan formed a ‘joint judicial committee on prisoners’ to facilitate the ‘humane treatment and expeditious release of prisoners of the respective countries in each other’s jails.’ In practice, much of the committee’s work revolved around the repatriation of hundreds of fishermen detained for straying into either side’s territorial waters. Although the committee has reportedly not met since 2013, prisoner exchanges have nevertheless continued amid the ebbs and flows in the bilateral relationship. In January 2018, for example, Pakistan freed nearly 300 Indian fishermen, and six months later, India released a handful of Pakistani prisoners. And this past April, in the wake of the Pulwama crisis, Pakistan freed 100 detained Indian fishermen as a goodwill gesture.

This is not to imply positive CBMs are necessarily better than negative, but rather that they achieve different things, and policymakers should keep this in mind as both sides explore common ground for future agreements.  Positive CBMs can build bilateral trust and discourage escalation by creating stakeholders opposed to violent resolutions of disputes.  Although the mood for a new round of confidence building may be low in the wake of the Pulwama crisis, there is abundant “low-hanging fruit” that should be politically palatable to leadership in both countries. Two in particular bear mention here, but there are others for consideration.

‘Incidents at Sea’ agreement

During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union inked an ‘Incidents at Sea’ (INCSEA) agreement to avoid ship collisions and prevent inadvertent escalation. Among other things, the agreement created ‘navy-to-navy channels to resolve disputes’ and annual forums ‘as a consultative mechanism.’ Similarly, in 2014 the United States and China – another bilateral relationship increasingly fraught with mistrust – agreed to a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium. India and Pakistan should emulate this model to build a baseline of bilateral naval engagement for mutual security benefit.  Over time, closer naval cooperation could become possible, perhaps in the form of combined counter-piracy patrols in the northern Arabian Sea.

Cooperative arms reduction

India and Pakistan maintain sizeable arsenals of aging military equipment, including a stockpile of first-generation short-range ballistic missiles – Privthi-1 and Hatf-1, respectively.  According to Feroz Khan, former director of Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs for Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, these missiles are technologically obsolete, unreliable, and may even be ‘dangerous for operational use’ due to their extended time in storage.  Cooperative arms reduction, involving verification staff from both countries, would promote trust and transparency without prejudice to either side’s security.

Historically, new rounds of confidence-building have followed periods of crisis between India and Pakistan.  As Feroz Khan points out, “Every major treaty or CBM between these countries has its origin in crisis resolution.” The Pulwama episode underscores the fact that the current regime of CBMs is an insufficient escalation firebreak.  At the same time, Pulwama presents an opportunity for New Delhi and Islamabad to come to the negotiating table to explore new agreements.  For the sake of regional security and stability, it is time for leaders in both countries to take a new approach to confidence building – one that strikes a proper balance between positive and negative CBMs.  Doing so will help to repair the chronic mistrust on the subcontinent and shield the bilateral relationship from shocks, decreasing the likelihood of hostilities when the next crisis occurs.

This article gives the views of the author and not the position of South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Image: Mindmap, Credit: Pixabay Tero Vesalainen

Ryan French holds an M.A. in Security Studies from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and is currently pursuing an M.B.A. from the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. Previously, he worked at the Center for Naval Analyses and U.S. Naval War College, where he consulted on U.S. naval strategy and tracked political-military affairs in the Asia-Pacific. His research has appeared in Strategic Studies Quarterly and The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, with commentaries in War on the Rocks and the World Policy Journal Blog

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