Subcontinent summit

There are not so many examples of hostile nations improving their ties that one such case does not conspicuously stand out. It is the warming of relations between India and Pakistan as demonstrated this week in the meeting between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq - the first meaningful encounter between the leaders of the two countries in ten years. Given the cycle of suspicion and animosity in which their nations have long been locked, this is an encouraging development. And, significantly, it is a development taking place without the involvement of the world's superpowers.

It may in fact be the possibility of shifting power alignments in Asia that accounts in part for the Indo-Pakistani thaw. The resumption of talks between the Soviet Union and China must be having some impact, inasmuch as Pakistan has long relied on China as an element of its anti-Soviet strategy even while India has looked to the Soviet Union as a counterweight to its Chinese neighbor. With Moscow and Peking now making friendlier noises, India and Pakistan may well feel they should come to some sort of accommodation in order to avert a resurgence of conflict in the subcontinent which either the Russians or the Chinese could exploit.

With the Russians still ensconced in neighboring Afghanistan, President Zia, in particular, appears to have strong motives for improving ties with India and thus protecting his Indian flank. He may reason that the United States has been helpful in supplying arms to Pakistan in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion, but it cannot be much help in protecting him from India. Adding to his concerns must also be the improvement in Mrs. Gandhi's ties with both Peking and Washington.

Be that as it may, stability in the subcontinent, and in the entire Indian Ocean-Persian Gulf area, is enhanced by the gradual reconciliation of India and Pakistan in recent months. Even before the New Delhi meeting, there had been a noticeable expansion of cultural and commercial exchanges. A consular agreement had been signed. Now the two leaders have agreed to establish a permanent joint commission to deal with such matters as trade, communications, and travel. They also agreed to resume lower-level talks on a no-war pact and peace treaty. Although the two pledged in 1972 to renounce force against each other, such a move would be seen to have symbolic importance.

Certainly a long way remains to go before the legacy of fear and hatred born of a bitter civil war and partition 35 years ago is removed. One should not exaggerate the measured steps to date. Ultimately, India and Pakistan will have to face their long unresolved dispute over the province of Kashmir. Meantime there are such other political problems to be taken up as India's concern about the supply of modern American arms to Pakistan and the continuing Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

But a beginning has to be made somewhere and the fact that it is being made is cause for quiet satisfaction. The Indo-Pakistani accord is especially instructive because it illustrates that fences can be mended and regional conflicts settled by the powers concerned, and not as a result of US or Soviet actions. How presumptuous for either superpower to underestimate the capacity of regional powers to do things on their own. Indeed, we perhaps might see more progress made toward peace if nations of a troubled region were more actively encouraged to make their influence felt and solve their own problems.

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