Resignation of PM Sharif: fresh blow to India–Pakistan strategic stability?

Cracks in India and Pakistan’s relationship continue to grow, with no sign of meaningful dialogue between the nations. The sudden departure of Pakistan’s prime minister brings new worries. Yet neither country can afford to neglect strategic stability in the coming months. Institutions on both sides of the border must continue to communicate, directly or otherwise.

India Pakistan border. Credit: Flickr/kkoshy

By Antoine Levesques, Research Associate for South Asia

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resigned on 28 July, his time in office cut short by the judicial complications of a corruption scandal ignited by the global 2016 ‘Panama Papers’ leak. Sharif’s meeting with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi 19 months ago marked the last pause in the long, slow decline of India–Pakistan bilateral relations. His resignation makes the continuation of this decline even more likely. It comes as South Asia awaits the attention of the Trump administration, which does not view the region as a high priority. Washington has yet to say how it intends to address conflict in Afghanistan, continue moving closer to India and manage a vexed relationship with Pakistan.

Pakistan is focused on becoming a terrorist-free ‘normalised’ country, but also worried by a widening economic and military gulf with India. With US bilateral policy possibly hardening, the country is drawing closer to China. This tightening relationship has seen Pakistan become a testbed for its eastern neighbour’s Belt and Road Initiative. India is losing patience with Pakistan, which it blames for recurring terrorist attacks and for inviting Beijing to intrude in the countries’ bilateral dispute, and so exert wider influence in the region. China and India are themselves locked in a stand-off over disputed territory in the Himalayas, a confrontation which prolongs a two-year slide in strategic trust between the world’s two largest nations.

India and Pakistan are both modernising their military arsenals. Neither country fully acknowledges that some of their unilateral behaviours are harming strategic stability – in Pakistan’s case, fine-tuning short-range nuclear tipped artillery; in India’s, thinking aloud about infusing elements of a counterforce strategy into the country’s deterrence posture. With the ten-year anniversary of the Mumbai attacks coming up next year, another mass-casualty event in India could lead the country to use escalating military force against Pakistan. Strengthening deterrence may well mitigate risks both countries see to peace and their respective pursuits of prosperity; but single developments, when taken together, can also raise the stakes in case tensions tipped over into crisis.

Prospects for dialogue are bleak

Diplomatic frustrations and mounting strategic anxiety demand a sober view of the scarce opportunities for strategic policymaking. Grand bargains with Pakistan around the normalisation of its de facto status as a nuclear-weapons state appear for now ever more ambitious, not least because of a geopolitical deadlock at the Nuclear Suppliers Group. No other major power can take at face value India and Pakistan’s commitments to restraint; nor is both willing and able to make them forgo their pre-conditions for resuming political dialogue. India’s security focus is also set increasingly beyond Pakistan. With Sharif gone and India disinclined to unconditionally resume its formal dialogue with Pakistan, even in private, one cannot realistically hope for the establishment of an iterative, confidential, high-capacity backchannel between the two countries.

What, if anything, can be done? Maintaining strategic stability between India and Pakistan should be the priority for policymakers. Even before Sharif’s resignation, there was an urgent need to prevent the India–Pakistan relationship declining further and to steer the countries away from deterrence failures and the ultimate unintentional use of nuclear weapons. The pursuit of a pick-and-mix collection of ideas may do more to rebuild bilateral confidence than the pursuit of an all-or-nothing package. A new Pakistani prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and his cabinet are in place. But Sharif’s resignation adds an unwanted complication. It removes an elected political heavyweight, and as such, a viable path for meaningful, civilian-led talks between Pakistan and India in times of peace or crisis.

Policymakers must work through strategically minded institutions – or informal contacts

In the next few months, policymakers should find it in their country's interest to work to sustain exchanges of perspective between those institutions in India and Pakistan able to think and act strategically. Pakistan’s outgoing envoy to New Delhi gave his own contrasted view of the upkeep of channels during his tenure. Modi and Sharif had allowed their respective national security advisers (NSA) to meet privately three times since the last public meeting of these statesmen. Such exchanges are the most viable institutional, bilateral instrument left open to the two nations. Pakistan needs to appoint a new national security adviser after successfully restoring a formal foreign minister invested in ties with India. Otherwise, in the absence of confident and uncontested political leadership in Pakistan, the most fruitful approach will be informal contact between individuals whose professional duties involve reading the intentions of the other side. Ideally these individuals should be empowered by whole-of-government-minded authorities from their respective countries.

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IISS Manama Dialogue 2017

India in the Gulf

IISS Senior Fellow for South Asia Rahul Roy-Chaudhury speaks at the 2017 IISS Manama Dialogue in Bahrain.

About the conference

The 11th IISS South Asia Security Conference, in partnership with the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the US National Defense University, took place in Muscat, Oman, on 13–15 October 2017.