Why is India not boycotting Pakistan?

Indian-Pakistani relations overshadowed by the Silk Road Initiative

Since 1947, Indian-Pakistani relations have been dominated by the dispute over Kashmiri affiliation. The conflict resulted in three wars. In order to settle it, various international mediation attempts were made, resolutions of the United Nations Security Council were passed and countless bilateral negotiations were conducted.

Various national and international developments, especially the BRI, have led to a change in the importance of Kashmir and thus the relationship between India and Pakistan in recent years.

After Modi took office in 2014, it initially looked like a new phase of rapprochement between India and Pakistan. As part of his “neighborhood first” policy, Modi invited the then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration and made a surprise visit to Pakistan in December 2015.

The bilateral relations: decoupling instead of rapprochement

In response to the ongoing terrorist attacks, Indian politics “broke” with Pakistan in the course of 2016. In January 2016, a few days after Modi's visit to Pakistan, there was a serious attack in Pathankot, India. In September 2016, India responded to an attack in Uri in the state of Jammu and Kashmir with commando operations against terrorist institutions in the Pakistani part of Kashmir.

Since then, there has been no sign that the Indian government is interested in further rapprochement with Pakistan beyond regular diplomatic relations. Various Indian ministers have made it clear that there will be no dialogue with Pakistan as long as the terrorism continues.

A movement in the opposite direction could be observed on the Pakistani side. The new government of Imran Khan campaigned for rapprochement with India and advocated the expansion of mutual trade. This was a clear change, as Pakistan had refused to trade with India for decades until the Kashmir conflict was resolved. Khan's initiative is all the more remarkable as he enjoys the backing of the military, who had sabotaged rapprochement with India for years, including the war in Kargil in 1999. When Pakistan set up a new corridor for Sikh pilgrims in Kartarpur in 2018, this became the starting point seen for a new dialogue with India. India endorsed the corridor, but declined further talks. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in June 2019, Khan hoped in vain to meet Modi.

The change of heart in Pakistan is due to several factors. The army also sees the poor economic situation as a security risk. The balance of payments crisis made a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) necessary. The IMF insisted that the government in Islamabad implement the demands of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to take stronger and stronger action against the financing of terrorism.

Regional Conflicts: The Changed Significance of Kashmir

The decoupling of Indo-Pakistani relations is likely also linked to changes in relation to the Kashmiri issue. A central trigger is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the largest single project within the framework of the BRI. The CPEC runs through the Pakistani part of Kashmir, which India has formally claimed since the former princely state joined the Indian Union in October 1947.

Pakistan officially sees all of Kashmir as a "disputed area" in the sense of the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council (UN). Its final membership is to be decided in a referendum originally proposed by India. In the meantime, however, the UN resolutions have lost their significance for a number of reasons. First, China has been a party to the conflict since the early 1960s, as it has occupied parts of Kashmir at the latest since the border war with India in 1962 and Pakistan contractually awarded it additional areas of Kashmir in 1963. Second, after the war of 1971, India and Pakistan agreed in the Shimla Peace Treaty (1972) to negotiate open problems exclusively bilaterally. However, this did not prevent Pakistan from internationalizing the Kashmir issue, for example by provoking regional crises such as in 1999, supporting militant groups in Kashmir or criticizing the human rights violations by Indian security forces.

With an estimated investment volume of 50 to 60 billion US dollars for the CPEC, China is clearly betting on maintaining the status quo in Kashmir: the division into an Indian and a Pakistani part and into the areas controlled by China. However, this status quo approach contradicts both the Indian and Pakistani positions.

It is not without a certain irony that the CPEC is a much bigger problem for Pakistani Kashmiri policy than it is for the Indian one. However, Chinese policy is consistent in that China has repeatedly proposed bilateral talks in previous Indo-Pakistani crises. In doing so, it de facto supported the Indian position, but not the Pakistani position.

In addition, Pakistan sees itself under massive pressure from the international community to act in accordance with the guidelines of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) against the financial flows of terrorist groups and their networks in their own country. Support for militant groups was, however, a central instrument of Pakistan's Kashmir policy, which was largely determined by the armed forces.

Former President Musharraf had publicly admitted in 2016 that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had trained terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). The army command used these groups for decades to assert their foreign policy interests against Afghanistan and India. In February 2019, the JeM had assumed responsibility for an attack in Indian Kashmir. Although these groups are banned in Pakistan, their successor organizations and their leaders were able to operate largely unhindered.

In light of the threat of sanctions by the FATF that would affect Pakistan's international creditworthiness, the government has taken a number of measures against banned organizations since early 2019. After years of blockade, China, also a member of the FATF, approved in May 2019 that Masood Azhar, the leader of the JeM, was added to the UN terrorist list. With this, Beijing signaled that it would no longer support Pakistani policy on militant groups.

On the other hand, India faces different challenges on the Kashmir issue. Even if Pakistan's support for militant groups should wane, local radicalization has been observed in Indian Kashmir since 2016. Pan-Islamist groups such as al ‑ Qaida and the »Islamic State« are also trying to use them for their agenda. The central government in New Delhi deposed the state government in December 2018. This means that no political dialogue is currently possible in which an elected state government could separate the moderate parts of the protest movement from the militant groups.

In the dispute over Kashmiri membership, India had signaled in earlier negotiations with Pakistan that the status quo could also be a solution: the permanent division of the area. But since Prime Minister Modi took office in 2014 and CPEC officially started in 2015, India's position seems to be changing too.

China has repeatedly expressed great interest in India joining the BRI. In 2017, the Chinese ambassador to India suggested changing the name of the CPEC and laying a corridor through Kashmir to India should India join the BRI. However, India has so far turned down all Chinese offers. From New Delhi's point of view, CPEC violates India's national sovereignty as it runs through the Pakistani part of Kashmir that India claims. Unlike his predecessors, Modi also repeatedly addressed the human rights situation in Gilgit-Baltistan, the Pakistani part of Kashmir. Modi indirectly affirmed India's traditional position that all of Kashmir is part of the Indian Union. In view of the strategic importance of Gilgit-Baltistan for the CPEC, Kashmir could in future be less of a bilateral problem with Pakistan for India than part of the conflict with China.

CPEC could also serve as a welcome opportunity for some foreign policy decision-makers in New Delhi to refuse participation in the BRI on grounds of national sovereignty. From an economic point of view, participation in the BRI would be quite attractive for India in order to attract further Chinese investments in the development of the infrastructure. Politically, however, India's participation would only be possible as a junior partner of China, which would be unacceptable for New Delhi in view of the equal status of the two states, which India claims.

Regional cooperation: The end of SAARC

The most obvious “victim” of the BRI and the changed Indian-Pakistani relations is the regional cooperation within the framework of the SAARC. The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreed by the SAARC members in 2006 has so far not brought any significant increase in intra-regional trade. In 2015 it was just over six percent of the region's total trade. The Chinese BRI investments are more likely to promote bilateral trade between the individual states with China, rather than the intra-regional exchange of goods. The volume of direct trade between India and Pakistan is already low due to their bilateral problems.

India also appears to have reduced its interest in SAARC as part of its strategy of decoupling from Pakistan. After the attack in Uri in September 2016, New Delhi boycotted the SAARC summit in Islamabad. At the same time, the Indian government pushed for a revival of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), founded in 1997. As part of the summit of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) in Goa in October 2016, India also organized a short-term program with the BIMSTEC countries, which also include SAARC members.

Since then there have been a number of activities and initiatives in BIMSTEC. Modi invited heads of state and government of BIMSTEC to his second inauguration in 2019. In doing so, he once again underscored India's interest in intensifying relations with East and Southeast Asia by means of its "Act East" policy. In such a constellation, Pakistan would no longer play a role for India.


The Silk Road Initiative has stirred up Indo-Pakistani relations and the Kashmir conflict. It has become significantly more difficult for Pakistan, also due to the growing pressure from the international community in the form of the IMF or the FATF, to continue its previous Kashmiri policy under these conditions.

For India, China and the BRI have long been a significantly greater strategic challenge, which is now increasingly overriding the Kashmir issue. Pakistan remains a security policy problem in view of the attacks by terrorist groups, but beyond regular diplomatic relations there is no recognizable interest in India in a new format of dialogue to discuss bilateral issues such as Kashmir, terrorism or trade. Regardless of this, Kashmir will remain a hotspot as long as the government in New Delhi does not reveal a strategy for countering local discontent in Kashmir politically.

For German and European politics, this means that in future they may have to deal less with regional conflicts such as Kashmir or regional organizations such as SAARC. In contrast, domestic political issues such as human rights, the role of minorities, freedom of expression and freedom of the press as well as working conditions for Western non-governmental organizations and their civil society partner organizations are becoming a major challenge for Germany and Europe's dealings with India and Pakistan.

Dr. habil. Christian Wagner is a Senior Fellow in the Asia Research Group.

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The current reflects the author's opinion.

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ISSN 1611-6364

doi: 10.18449 / 2019A40