Progess In Unlikely Places

It has been the best spring the subcontinent has seen in decades. In the recently concluded three-day meeting between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the two leaders talked peace, and for the first time, Musharraf said that for the two nuclear powers, ``The military option is not an option anymore.''

But most significantly, for the first time India and Pakistan seriously talked business. Singh and Musharraf promised to set up a joint business council to encourage two-way trade, whicn now barely exists. Singh was especially keen on opening up the old trade routes that would connect central Asia with Pakistan and India. Both leaders talked of pushing along a proposal for a 1,600-kilometer, $4 billion gas pipeline that would extend from Iran to India. Such a pipeline would pass through Pakistan and earn it some $600 million in transit fees.

Nothing brings people closer together than a network of shared economic interests. And India and Pakistan have plenty of those. The neighbors are strategically located in the center of East, Central, and West Asia. Historically, they have held the key to the trade routes that connected the region through the high Himalayan passes, from Persia to China. Both India and Pakistan also have common needs, the most important being water and energy.

Peace would produce another major dividend. Both nations spend billions on defending their common borders, and on their armies -- about a fifth of Pakistan's annual budget is spent on the military. The Congress Party-led coalition in New Delhi has an ambitious social agenda. Freeing up funds that go toward watching the borders, and spending them on necessities like health care and education instead, could help New Delhi achieve those goals faster.

But the challenges to achieving these stated goals are enormous. President Musharraf can order the gas pipeline to be built, but it has to pass through his restive southern state of Baluchistan. Musharraf also has to rein in the fundamentalists, who have quietly been increasing their political influence in Pakistan. A Pakistan in turmoil is a danger for an economically ambitious India. So the Indians are working hard to develop common economic interests. Early last year, New Delhi proposed the establishment of a South Asia Free Trade Agreement among India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Mauritius, and Bhutan. The idea is to link the economies of the region so they can rise with the region's superpower, India.

That free-trade zone will be a long time coming. As will the gas pipeline and peace in Kashmir. But at least the goal posts for a common agenda have been set. With luck, the process started by Musharraf and Singh in April will prove irreversible.

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