How to Negotiate When Mutual Trust is Lacking


The long-enduring India-Pakistan rivalry is one of most fiercely debated rivalries in the international system. Since 1947 it has witnessed three major and one limited war (Kargil),  periodic military skirmishes along the border (both agreed and working), indefatigable acrimony over alleged interference in mutual affairs —  cross border terrorism (as India alleges) and support to Baloch separatists (as Pakistan claims) — and regular diatribes in international fora and the media, over the Kashmir dispute. For much of their negotiating history, the two locked horns over the quintessential problem: which issue needs resolution first — cross-border terrorism or Kashmir?

Eventually in 1997, the middle-path was chosen by initiating the composite dialogue process (CDP) which allowed simultaneous talks on all pending disputes without giving precedence to a particular issue over others. The CDP has not only brought the two sides closer to resolving some of them, but also facilitated a range of confidence building measures (CBMs) to boost mutual trust. But the CDP has also witnessed periodic derailments, both short and long-term, following terrorist attacks in India, allegedly by Pakistan-based groups. Thereafter, how have India and Pakistan managed to raise the level of mutual trust and continued the talks, bears interesting lesson for other states, including Australia and Indonesia which are struggling to resolve their differences?

There are striking similarities between the India-Pakistan and Australia-Indonesia dyads. Australia established relations with independent Indonesia (declared in 1945) in 1949 (when it was recognized by the Netherlands), just two years after Pakistan’s creation and India’s independence in 1947. Ever since, both dyads have engaged at the level of prime ministers and presidents, and cooperated in regional fora, outside the bilateral mode.

For both dyads it took almost 50 years to realize that they are neighbors, and neighbors have problems, and problems need to be resolved peacefully through talks. In 1994 the Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating exhorted: “Why can’t we be friends!” (repeating four times in his speech) and in 1997, the Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral and Nawaz Sharif came to terms with this realization and established the CDP to resolve all outstanding disputes.

Ever since, both dyads have witnessed hostilities and unforeseen events that have proven inimical to bilateral relations. In the case of India-Pakistan, in 1999, the Kargil war (perpetuated by the Pakistani military) derailed the peace process. In the same year, the East Timor secession and violence perpetrated under the watch of the Indonesian military compelled Australia to intervene, which led to increased acrimony and tensions between the two sides.

Following the September 11, 2011 attacks Australian military joined the war on terror against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan which made it a target of al-Qaeda’s affiliates, including the Indonesia-based terrorist group Jemmah Islamiah (JI). During this period, India and Pakistan were on the brink of their fifth war, following the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, executed by the Pakistan-based outfit, Jaish-e-Muhammad. In the following years, both India and Australia suffered casualties in terrorist attacks undertaken by groups based in their counterparts’ territories. Australian lives were lost in the two Bali bombings and its embassy targeted in Indonesia, and India remained a perpetual target of the Pakistan based groups, most brazenly in 2008 in Mumbai, in which 166 people died, including two Australians.

If India has struggled to pressurize Pakistan to extract adequate punishment for Hafeez Saeed (chief of Lashkar-e-Toiba – LeT) and Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi (LET’s operational commander and 2008 Mumbai attacks’ planner) for their acts, Australia has had its own frustration to cope with, over JI chief Abu Bakr Bashir’s light sentencing. In both instances, political expediency and religious compulsions seem to have triumphed over a desire for good neighborliness. The attack on Parliament had forced India’s hand to severe political and diplomatic linkages with Pakistan, and recently the failure to secure clemency for the Bali Nine convicts, Mayuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan compelled Australia to recall its ambassador from Jakarta in April 2015.

However, to be fair to both dyads, tensions between neighbors is a common feature in international relations. US-Cuba, China-Japan, China-Taiwan, Iran-Iraq, Russia-Ukraine, the Koreas, China-Vietnam, Afghanistan-Pakistan – the list is long. So considering this existential reality of international relations what lessons does India-Pakistan experience offer for these dyadic rivalries, including Australia-Indonesia?

At the outset one recalls what the Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat said in his historic speech in the Israeli Knesset in 1977 that holds so true for both dyads. Sadat had reasoned, “Yet there remains another wall. This wall constitutes a psychological barrier…a barrier of suspicion…deception …hallucination…A barrier of distorted and eroded interpretation of every event and statement. It is this psychological barrier which I described in official statements as constituting 70 percent of the problem.”

So the question arises how to overcome this psychological barrier in order to negotiate when there is no mutual trust?  The India-Pakistan case suggests that it is necessary to recognize the importance of ‘ripeness’ in resolving differences. Negotiation expert Richard Haass has observed that ripeness is a vital element in the negotiation process and its absence may render negotiations not only counterproductive but also lead to disappointment.

Ripeness is not a natural condition and needs to be searched for, developed and exploited. It develops when there is a shared perception on both sides for friendship which then needs to be sustained and exploited by a strong leadership. A leadership is considered strong when it has the critical political base and stability which will allow it to take bold decisions, and also sell those decisions to the people. Therefore, leadership has a central role in making progress in talks over common challenges.

India-Pakistan negotiation history is stacked with instances of how weak leadership and political compulsions have derailed negotiations time and again. In 1989 political uncertainties and looming elections had compelled then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to back paddle on negotiations on the Siachen glacier, after the two sides were reportedly very close to a breakthrough. Similarly, during Pakistan’s decade of democracy (1988-99) frequent regime changes had impeded progress in bilateral talks, as the leadership of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto lacked the will and political muscle to take bold decisions. Pakistani prime ministers were perpetually under siege from the military and embroiled in allegations of corruption, nepotism and misgovernance.

But when Nawaz Sharif came to power with a thumping majority in 1996 he not only supported the creation of the CDP with India but also signed the Lahore Declaration with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in February 1999, who had undertaken the historic bus trip to Pakistan, much to the chagrin of the military, and Sharif would soon be overthrown by General Pervez Musharraf a few months later in October.

Australia, on the other hand, too is experiencing the effects of weak leadership in Indonesia. Indonesian President Joko Widodo is not a political aristocrat and had come to power with a narrow victory margin defeating the former right-wing military heavyweight General Probowo Subianto. As a result, Jokowi remains hostage to his coalition partners and has sought to augment his political standing through political appointments in his cabinet. His inability to back the anti-graft bureau (KPK) against the tirade unleashed by the National Police (Polri) and continuing with Budi Gunawan as the Police chief, in spite of being charged with corruption by the KPK, has eroded public trust in him. Besides, his delay in effecting the much-promised political reforms has further undermined his position among the people.

With an ever watchful military breathing down his neck and very demanding coalition partners, there is little concession or compromise one can expect of him in foreign policy. Pushing negotiations with Jokowi in such domestic circumstances to extract a compromise would only prove counter-productive. This was proven in the case of Bali Nine convicts, Sukumaran and Chan whose clemency pleas, as the Australia’s Defense Minister Kevin Andrews aptly recognized, were dismissed due to Jokowi’s weak leadership.

So what are the key take-home lessons for Australia and Indonesia from the India-Pakistan experience? To begin with, the India-Pakistan dyadic rivalry is testimony that if there no genuine political will prevails on both sides, chances of any progress in talks are remote. But political will does not emerge in a vacuum. It hinges on a number of factors such as the existence of a shared perception for the desirability for an accord or level of friendship of both sides, clout of the leaders, political strength of the opposition, government stability, and the level of public trust in the government.

In the Indonesian case, President Jokowi stands out as a politically weak leader heading a fragile government, who rejected the clemency pleas of Sukumaran and Chan fearing public backlash. But if Jokowi or Indonesia is genuinely keen to build bridges with Australia, then public support for it needs to be nurtured domestically and then utilized constructively. Just as public support for democracy and desire for friendship with India has strengthened the hands of the Pakistani democratic leaders to continue peace talks with India. It can be done by facilitating people-to-people engagements or track-two diplomacy as CBMs to strengthen peace constituencies in both countries.

Positive interactions and past instances of humanitarian aid (such as during tsunami by Australia) need to be highlighted to encourage mutual appreciation. Alumni who have graduated from Australian institutions and vice versa, and have reached positions of influence, need to be roped in to spread success stories and positive experiences, on both sides. Citizens from outside the government such as lawyers, artisans, academics, businessmen, researchers and journalists can also advance the peace juggernaut.

Not surprisingly, within two weeks of his election victory, Tony Abbott prudently visited Jakarta and emphasized the importance of business, cultural, research and community links to promote mutual understanding.  Post-Bali Nine executions, Australia has also done well to smother public backlash against Indonesia and discourage self-imposed public moratorium on visits to Bali. It continues to support ongoing sporting, media and youth exchanges in the track-two mode.

Track-two diplomacy serves four key purposes: First, it creates grass-roots and bottom-up support structure through virulent peace constituencies that are instrumental in minimizing any unforeseen domestic backlash should dialogues fail or any untoward incident occur. Second, these peace constituencies expand the political space for the leaders to take bold decisions. Third, it creates a politically conducive climate in which diplomats and leaders can talk freely. And fourth, it promotes better understanding between peoples that helps change the historical stereotypes about each other and minimize the impact of false propaganda.

To conclude, as the way forward, Australia and Indonesia should recognize that to resolve differences a constructive and structured dialogue process is necessary, supported by a leadership that is self-assured and strong. Negotiations would prove futile if the political climate is inconducive. And to create a conducive political climate, peace constituencies need to be nurtured through people-to-people interactions.

Forcing a dialogue whilst mutual trust is lacking, will only breed frustration. Anwar Sadat had warned against it in 1977, and like India and Pakistan, Australia and Indonesia would be wise to recall his words.