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The Williamsburg Conference 1997

Security and Political Stability
South Asia: An Opportunity for Peace

In one of the most striking aspects of the conference, participants heard that India and Pakistan have what may be their best chance since Partition to make substantial progress toward peace. New political leadership, a changing geostrategic context, and most important an evolution of public opinion provided a window of opportunity for a dramatic reduction of tension.

Some participants had arrived in Hong Kong directly from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in the Maldives, and they brought an optimistic message. In Male, the new premiers of India and Pakistan, Inder Kumar Gujral and Nawaz Sharif, respectively, demonstrated sincere willingness to make progress. Key is the seeming acknowledgment by the two governments that the Kashmir issuethough it must remain on the agendawill not be solved overnight. As a result, the two countries are looking for ways to make progress on other fronts, progress that could produce economic benefits and build confidence. Participants welcomed this approach, though they expressed hope that Pakistan would nonetheless step up its efforts to curb incursions by militants into Kashmir, and India draw down its troop presence.

Gujral may not have received as big an electoral mandate as Sharif, but peace has an increasingly powerful domestic constituency. After 50 years of independence, citizens of India and Pakistan are asking why they lag so far behind Singapore, Malaysia, and other East Asian countries. Indeed, many statistics indicate that South Asia, with 500 million people living below the poverty line, is even worse off than sub-Saharan Africa. The arrival of satellite television, as well as increased foreign travel, has helped drive home to South Asians the message that they are lagging behind not only the West, but also the East.

There is a growing recognition in South Asia that three wars and massive military expenditures are largely to blame for the situation. Indians and Pakistanis are starting to demand that the money being spent on tanks and fighter-bombers be channeled instead into education and social programs. Leading figures also see economic benefits to be reaped from jointly piping natural gas from Central Asia, and from building highway and rail links to open up trade. They would like to see investment from East Asia in these projects. This fledgling, positive trend needs to be reinforced by regular meetings of top leaders, as well as unofficial exchanges between groups and individuals.

The end of the cold war, which diminished tensions between India's and Pakistan's respective allies, helped open the door to progress. South Asian governments would like to see the United States and others encourage the peace process, but with gentle, behind-the-scenes diplomacy rather than public pressure. The conference heard that there is a growing consensus in Washington that South Asia policy should no longer be driven exclusively by the nuclear nonproliferation issue but should also support other ways to reduce tension.