A More Important UN Handshake

Forget Obama-Rouhani. Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif are the real General Assembly pair to watch.

The global foreign-policy establishment's gaze has been fixed on Midtown East this week in anticipation of an important meeting between the leaders of two countries that have been at odds for decades.

No, it's not the potential handshake between U.S. president Barack Obama and Iran's new president Hassan Rowhani (which didn’t ultimately pan out)—it's the meeting of Pakistan's new prime minister Nawaz Sharif and India's outgoing prime minister Manmohan Singh that’s set to take place this weekend following this week’s United Nations General Assembly activity.

While an Obama-Rowhani meeting would have been a historic first step in renewing a more cordial dialogue between the United States and Iran (and U.S-Iran relations have arguably taken a step closer after the nudge of this week’s diplomacy in New York), a Sharif-Singh meeting could achieve immediate gains that benefit not only India and Pakistan at a crucial time for both countries, but the entire international community.

Sharif returned to power in May in a landslide victory that marked an impressive political comeback for Sharif personally. After attempting to push through neoliberal economic reforms in two terms in office in the 1990s, his own army chief—at the time, a relatively unknown Pervez Musharraf—ousted Sharif in a 1999 coup. Sharif returned to Pakistan from exile in late 2007 to run for the country's first contested elections in a decade, but he lost that race when Pakistanis delivered a sympathetic mandate to the Pakistan Peoples Party following the December 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto. A presumably wiser Sharif is now just 112 days into office, but he's already working to develop warmer ties with India despite long-simmering issues that have plagued the bilateral relationship since Partition in 1947.

Singh, in his ninth year as prime minister, will leave office after India's national elections to the Lok Sabha next spring, and he has been relatively cool to Sharif's entreaties—he demurred from a June invitation to attend Sharif's swearing-in. Singh will likely be replaced by either Rahul Gandhi, an uninspiring scion of the family that's long controlled India's Congress Party, or Narendra Modi, the controversial, feisty governor of the Indian state of Gujarat. While that means Singh has limited power to strike any long-term resolution with Pakistan, further cooperation between Singh and Sharif can establish a calm backdrop to both the Indian election and the transition to India's first new government in a decade. That will be especially true if Modi wins, who has criticized India's current government for being too soft on Pakistan, and whose role in Gujarat’s 2002 anti-Muslim riots, which led to over 1,000 deaths, remains controversial.

Given Singh's lame-duck status, both Islamabad and New Delhi are downplaying the meeting's importance, not least due to the latest border skirmish in early August that left five Indian soldiers dead. But breakthroughs in foreign policy can come exactly at those times when expectations are low and when no one else seems to be paying attention.

In broadly strategic terms, a Singh-Sharif meeting is important for at least five reasons.

First, the United States has no strategic interest greater than stability within Pakistan, and it's especially crucial in light of the U.S. military drawdown in neighboring Afghanistan next year. To the extent Pakistan's military forces and its intelligence services are engaged with Kashmir and other skirmishes along the Indian border, it's a distraction from the battle against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in the fragile, largely lawless, northwestern provinces bordering Afghanistan. Though the military is skeptically waiting while Sharif tries to negotiate a political settlement with the Pakistani Taliban, Sharif's efforts will be much easier if the attention of Pakistan's military and intelligence isn't drawn into other misadventures. Moreover, if conditions in Afghanistan rapidly deteriorate after the U.S. withdrawal, tensions could rise quickly in Pakistan or Kashmir.

Second, Pakistani-Indian cooperation will add stability to southwest Asia at a time of rapid-fire leadership transitions. Sharif and Iran's Rowhani took office only earlier this summer and India will have a new prime minister within months. But Afghanistan is also scheduled to hold elections to succeed term-limited president Hamid Karzai next spring, and Bangladesh will hold elections in January 2014 in the aftermath of this year’s politically explosive Shahbagh protests. Taken together, five countries in southwest Asia with a cumulative population of over 1.65 billion people will experience a governmental turnover within 12 months. That also comes at a time when Xi Jingping is in just his first year as the leader of the People's Republic of China, a key player in the region.

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