Monday, March 23, 2009

The solution that India and Pakistan almost had on a longstanding dispute

DESPITE opinions to the contrary, diplomacy does not always lead to conflict, and conflict isn't necessarily a continuation of diplomacy by other means. On the other hand, acts of violence -whether by state or non­ state actors - can put paid to years of calibrated and exhausting diplomatic efforts. The Mumbai attacks of November 26 appear to have claimed, among their many victims, a probable resolution of the Sir Creek maritime boundary dispute between India and Pakistan. Not only is the five-year-Iong composite dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad in a freeze but the two states now look set to miss the May 13 deadline for submitting their mutually agreeable claims on continental shelves to the UN Convention.

Law of Seas

Sir Creek, a 96-km-long estuary in the Rann of Kutch, has been a matter of disagreement between India and Pakistan since the late '60s, with Pakistan claiming the whole of the creek and India asking for a maritime boundary midway through it, according to international maritime law applicable to all navigable waterways.

Pakistan, till recently, had refuted India's claims of navigability; but negotiations last year, as part of the composite dialogue process initiated in January 2004, had brought Pakistan round to India's perspective. The relative lack of politicization of Sir Creek meant that it stayed low on the public radar while making it a dispute easier to end.

Nevertheless, the region is rich in bio-diversity, in addition to oil and gas reserves, thereby raising the stakes. A failure to re­ solve the dispute means India and Pakistan will submit conflicting claims before the UNCLOS in May, and neither country would be able to use the resources in the area till further negotiations, not likely anytime soon, succeed.

The joint survey undertaken by the two countries to prepare a new map of the area, to replace old ones made obsolete by the creek changing course, has come to naught for the moment. Fixing the maritime boundary would have been the logical next step after ascertaining the land boundary, something the two sides had agreed upon. The setback is an instance of the bigger bilateral regression following the Mumbai attacks.


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