Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

April 21, 2011


Over the last decade, the South Asian security complex expanded in four directions. To the north, China reasserted itself as a major player in Nepal; to the east, Beijing and New Delhi compete for influence in Myanmar; in the south, there is a major race to dominate the Indian Ocean; and, perhaps most importantly, in the west, we seen the renewed geopolitical importance of Afghanistan. This last trend was confirmed in 2007, when Afghanistan became the eighth and newest member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

However, the core strategic conundrum that permeates any regional issue, from security to cross-border trade or cooperation, remains that between India and Pakistan. For example, if held at all, regional SAARC summits mainly serve as an occasion for informal consultations between Indian and Pakistani diplomats – smaller countries like Bangladesh or Sri Lanka know well that the proposals for a South Asian free trade zone or even economic union will remain on paper until the two “big brothers” solve their issues. This fundamental centrality of the India-Pakistan dispute plays itself out in occasional war, crisis, and persistent attempts to undercut each other elsewhere in the region.

These two countries were rivals even before they were created. The concepts and ideas that guided the new Pakistan and India were formulated during the first half of the 20th century and reached a climax in 1947, when partition made hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of refugees. They subsequently acquired extra-regional, mutually exclusive allies, became ideological rivals, and were shaped by quite different organizing principles. All of this happened despite a common history and geography, very similar cultural roots and economic systems, and a strategic environment that had been shared for centuries.

Almost seventy years later, the two countries have been through at least three wars and numerous crises. Now that the dispute has also “gone nuclear,” the threat of escalation looms behind any minor tension. An extended recent trip to each, including conversations with strategic and military elites, showed little evidence that the process of normalization is moving forward. In fact, relations are worse now than they were ten years ago, and a new crisis could arise at any moment.

Read the full article at » (Subscription required)