Skip to main content
Chinese President Mao Zedong shake hands with Richard Nixon after their meeting in Beijing, China on February 22, 1972. (AFP/Getty Images)

Not a 'Nixon to China' Moment, Yet

Husain Haqqani

For some it was a ‘Nixon to China’ moment. There were similarities also with Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem that marked the beginning of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif boldly invited his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, to drop in and Modi stopped over in Lahore on Christmas Day on way back to Delhi from Kabul.

As gestures go, it was as clear a statement as any by both leaders that they are committed to overcoming the burden of the past and building a better future for India-Pakistan relations.

But while dramatic gestures are an integral part of international relations and diplomacy, good ties between nations with an adversarial past are not made of dramatic gestures alone.

Nixon’s China trip was preceded and followed up with several rounds of meticulous negotiations. The U.S. realised it could not ignore a nation of one billion people forever, a fact noted by Nixon in an article in Foreign Affairs during his 1968 election campaign. American corporations salivated at the prospect of access to a new market comprising almost a fifth of the world’s population.

On the Chinese side, Mao and Zhou Enlai persuaded their colleagues that China needed peace with the United States to deal with threats from the Soviet Union. Later, Deng Xiao Ping’s ‘Four Modernizations’ concept transformed the Chinese Communist Party. Deng argued successfully that China needed to modernize and catch up with the rest of the world before thinking of itself as a global power.

The U.S.-China entente paved the way for China’s peaceful rise and, some would argue, the demise of the Soviet Union. But it also left the Communist Party of China entrenched in power albeit at the head of a capitalist economy. Both China and the U.S. benefited from the enterprise though China may have profited more.

Nixon went to China in 1972, paving the way for 43 years of cooperation between two countries that had been adversaries until then.

Although the U.S. stopped recognizing the Republic of China government in Taiwan, it did not abandon Taiwan’s security. China went on to build its own economic ties with Taiwan under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ slogan – a situation that endures for the moment.

Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem did not result in a similarly enduring peace, however. The Egyptian leader secured return of the Sinai Peninsula from Israel and became the first Arab leader to establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. But he could not end the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Egypt and Israel are still at peace but the hope of broader Arab-Israeli normalization have not materialized. Both Sadat and his Israeli partner in the peace talks, Yitzhak Rabin, were assassinated by extremists on their respective sides. All Arabs have not accepted the right of Israel to exist, a Palestinian State has not emerged and neither Israeli occupation nor terrorism have ended.

What does the success of the ‘Nixon to China’ initiative foretell us about the ‘Modi to Lahore’ foray, especially when seen in contrast to the miscarriage of the ‘Sadat in Jerusalem’ undertaking?

The U.S.-China rapprochement had broad support in both countries while the pockets of hatred in the Middle East were just too strong to fashion an effective compromise. Sadat will always be admired for his courage and his vision but that vision is taking much longer to materialise.

In India and Pakistan’s case, Nawaz Sharif and Modi definitely seem to have the desire to normalise relations. But there is considerable potential for spoilers on both sides to ensure that nothing substantive moves forward.

The two prime ministers can ignore politically weak opponents trying to play to the gallery at home. On the Pakistani side, all major political parties have welcomed Modi’s trip though that has not been the case in India. So far, it seems that the Pakistani military too is onboard with Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to resume dialogue through Foreign Secretary level talks.

But will Sharif be able to shut down all Jihadi groups in Pakistan, including India-specific groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad? What will Modi and Sharif be able to offer those in Pakistan who believe that there should be no normalisation of ties with India until the issue of Jammu and Kashmir is resolved?

India’s final offer on Kashmir –an adjustment along the line of control in which both sides largely keep what they have – has been on the table since 1963. It has not been acceptable to Pakistan. Militancy is seen by hardliners in Pakistan as the only way to keep the Kashmir issue alive, precluding a complete shutdown of all Jihadis.

Then there are the votaries of Hindutva who cannot stop talking of ‘Akhand Bharat’ and Pakistan’s Islamists who think the Prophet has prophesied Ghazwa-e-Hind –a great battle for Islamisation of India.

BJP Secretary General Ram Madhav is the latest ideologue to speak out of turn about ‘Akhand Bharat,’ giving fodder to Pakistan’s ‘Ghazwa-e-Hind’ extremists who deem India an eternal enemy of Pakistan. That nuclear weapons should change simple-minded ideological equations does not occur to either.

Nawaz Sharif’s Foreign Affairs Advisor, Sartaj Aziz, probably had these factors in mind when he said after the Modi stopover in Lahore that he did not expect much from the initial phase of Pakistan-India talks. Then what, if anything, might be accomplished from Modi and Sharif holding hands in Lahore?

From Modi’s perspective, it would be good to have a ceasefire in militant attacks similar to the one that resulted from talks during the Manmohan Singh era, following the standoff over the 2001 attack on India’s Parliament. It lasted for several years, allowed India to break the back of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir and ended only after the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Nawaz Sharif, on the other hand, might just be seeking to assert himself in external relations while trying to open space for trade with India. Pakistan’s Punjabi business elite want trade with India and as a member of that elite Nawaz Sharif does too, though Pakistani critics of such trade also abound.

The best outcome in the India-Pakistan case for now comprises modest possibilities. These should not be dismissed lightly but they do not reflect a ‘Nixon to China’ moment that dramatically transforms adversarial relations into a positive partnership.

Related Articles

South Asia’s Human Capital Crisis

Aparna Pande

The majority of the population in this region is under the age of 21 years, which could be asset with proper education and training...

Continue Reading

Modi: Three Years On

Husain Haqqani & Aparna Pande

Husain Haqqani and Aparna Pande on the Indian Prime Minister...

View PDF

The United States and Canada Can Make Space Great Again Together

Sean Kelly & Christopher Sands

Sean Kelly and Christopher Sands on CSA/NASA Collaboration...

Continue Reading