To move diplomacy forward, non-diplomatic steps are often required. For China and the US in 1971, it was Ping-Pong. More recently, for India and Pakistan, it was a cricket match and a bus ride.
On Feb. 20, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee inaugurated the first bus service in 50 years between the two countries, traveling from Amritsar to Lahore. The first visit of an Indian prime minister to Pakistan since 1989 provided the occasion for substantive talks with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Cricket teams from the two countries met in India earlier in the month for their first major series in a decade. Fortunately for diplomatic relations, each side won one match.
Clearly the two prime ministers who have encouraged such steps believe that, after 50 years, the time has come to improve relations. But the obstacles are formidable.
Suspicion and animosity created when the two parts of former British India were separated in 1947 remain. Hindu nationalists in India vandalized the cricket field on which the February matches were to be played. Opposition groups in Pakistan demonstrated against the opening of the bus service and the Indian prime minister's visit.
Nevertheless, in the Lahore meeting the two leaders sought to deal seriously with the two issues that today dominate any Delhi-Islamabad dialogue: the status of Kashmir and their nuclear programs.
The future of the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir has been the central bone of contention since independence, dampening prospects for normal relations and resulting in three wars and military buildups. Artillery exchanges continue along the "line of control" that divided Kashmir. Pakistan wants a plebiscite in the state; India says its future is nonnegotiable. Despite the differences, the two prime ministers at the Lahore meeting recognized that Kashmir is an "essential" question and agreed to intensify efforts to resolve the problem.
The arms race went nuclear last year with underground explosions of nuclear weapons by both sides. In Lahore, the Indian and Pakistani leaders recognized the dangers of the nuclear standoff and agreed to alert each other to any incident that might risk a nuclear exchange. They further agreed to announce any missile tests in advance and to continue moratoriums on nuclear tests.
Many blanks remain to be filled in before full understandings are reached. To further this process, the leaders agreed to a series of high-level meetings, possibly to be followed by a Sharif-Nawaz visit to Delhi.
The US has been more than a bystander as the two countries seek to lessen tensions. Alarmed by threats to global nonproliferation, Washington imposed economic sanctions on the two nations, including a ban on lending by international financial institutions. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott on Jan. 31 completed his eighth round of talks on the subcontinent, designed to gain Indian and Pakistani accession to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and restraints on missile development, fissile material manufacture, and technology export.
Further talks are planned, but, as the result of talks to date and the improved atmosphere, the US has lifted some sanctions and removed its objections to World Bank lending. Neither Pakistan nor India can appear to yield to US pressure - Washington's past on-and-off relations with Pakistan and perceived neglect of democratic India are well remembered.
The two prime ministers face both issues with handicaps of political opposition and internal unrest. In India, recent elections have reduced the government's majority in parliament. In Pakistan, Mr. Sharif faces severe economic problems and opposition from extreme Islamic groups.
Bus rides and cricket matches do not solve diplomatic problems, but they help create an atmosphere in a region of potential conflict in which such issues can be approached. In showing the political courage to follow up on such steps, the prime ministers deserve the world's gratitude.
* David D. Newsom, a former US ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs, lives in Charlottesville, Va.