A people- centric approach to dispute resolution is the need of the hour. States and governments should not make abstractions of local populations.
A war does precisely that.
Indian newspapers have reported that China has blocked a tributary of the Brahmaputra.
Some of the rivers under the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan originate in China. It is hard to miss the timing of the Chinese blockade. Since it may impact water flow into India, the lower riparian country, India should be concerned. Pakistan, too, has been in a similar situation in relation to India.
However, there is an important difference. The three wars between India and Pakistan notwithstanding, India consented to third- party arbitration after Pakistan took India to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, The Hague, under the Indus Water Treaty. Contrarily, China and India have not been able to legalize the matter with a treaty. Instead, India and China have established an Expert Level Mechanism on trans- border rivers.
Bilateralism remains China's main approach to international relations to the exclusion of third- party arbitration. An approach like this serves to minimize the role of law in Asia while allowing Asian powers to use political weight in resolving issues with their neighbours.
India's reaction to the Uri attack has been three- pronged: surgical strikes across the LoC, considerations of breaching the Indus Water Treaty and withdrawal from the Saarc summit that was to be hosted by Islamabad. India, like China, is looking at unconventional options to pressurize the Nawaz Sharif government to act on terrorist groups operating under the patronage of the military. Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan withdrew from the Saarc summit following India. A visibly upset Islamabad blamed India for derailing the meet. Soon after, Sri Lanka and Nepal joined the chorus to postpone the summit due to the prevailing environment.
The withdrawal of the countries has put to the fore the role of terrorists and non- State actors in souring regional peace and security.
The UN secretary- general, Ban Ki- moon, has offered to mediate in the dispute. Arbitration between nation states by the UN chief is not unprecedented.
In the 1980s, the UN secretary- general arbitrated matters between France and New Zealand in the Rainbow Warrior case. With China's exception, Asian countries have consistently reposed their faith in third- party arbitration.
Under various resolutions, the UN has long maintained an institutional presence in the contested area between India and Pakistan. Today, India questions the utility of the observer role of the UN in its relations with Pakistan. India, like China, is making attempts to bilateralize the issue.
Gandhi's Talisman measures the utility of any action on the basis of its impact on the poor. Today, a people- centric approach to territoriality, the dominant issue between Asian nations, is called for. Tensions induce fatigue and amnesia among the people of warring nations. They scuttle the possibilities of the peace dividend in the region. One cannot miss the fact that tensions between India and Pakistan are the new proxy for the US- China rivalry in the region. Western support for either country is a precursor to huge arms sale in the region. Wars are good for global capitalism but not for people.
Asia ought to recall its precolonial past where people have been valued over territory.
War drums must not drown that Gandhian talisman. So long India and Pakistan allow the Western nations the space to play their geopolitical games in the region, a solution will never be forthcoming.