[These excerpts are from an article which appears in the latest edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]


India and Pakistan have tempered their rivalry over the years by negotiating many bilateral confidence-building measures (CBMs), but the current patchwork of agreements cannot prevent an act of cross-border terrorism from triggering a major militarised crisis. To help mitigate this shortfall, this article advocates a new conceptual approach towards confidence building that identifies two categories of agreements – negative and positive. Negative CBMs oblige inaction; they can be defined as promises to eschew provocative behaviour, so as to prevent miscalculation and accidental war. Most prominent Indo-Pakistani CBMs fall under this category – examples include agreements on non-attack of nuclear facilities and non-violation of airspace. Positive CBMs, by contrast, oblige action; they entail tangible engagement and cooperation in the military, diplomatic, or economic domains. Examples might include counter-piracy cooperation and the expansion of people-to-people contacts. This article argues that positive CBMs invite reciprocity and are a plausible tool for promoting bilateral goodwill, reducing mistrust, and insulating Indo-Pakistani relations from shocks.


Although India and Pakistan have dozens of CBMs on the books, the most well-known agreements are those that increase military transparency or prohibit confrontational actions in peacetime, for instance, by banning ballistic missile flight tests and major field exercises adjacent to the international border. Such agreements are helpful in preventing miscalculation and accidental war, but they cannot dissuade deliberate escalation by either side – for instance, the possibility that New Delhi might order punitive airstrikes against Pakistan the next time a Pakistani terrorist outfit attacks an Indian city. Given the risk of nuclear escalation in such a scenario, a new generation of CBMs is needed that could serve as a firebreak in a future crisis, irrespective of the triggering event.

As a means to this end, this article advocates a new conceptual approach towards Indo-Pakistani confidence building. Many of the prominent CBMs in place are qualitatively ‘negative’ rather than ‘positive’ – similar to the distinction between negative vs. positive human rights and negative vs. positive security assurances.


This article argues that positive CBMs invite reciprocity and are a plausible tool for promoting bilateral goodwill, reducing mistrust, and insulating Indo-Pakistani relations from shocks. Their employment could bring about a series of incremental changes in the Indo-Pakistani relationship, paving the way for a transformative, self-sustaining peace. By evaluating the impact of CBMs on Indo-Pakistani relations, this paper assumes that elites in both countries can influence bilateral dynamics and affect regional change. Accordingly, this paper analyses the promises and pitfalls of CBMs through a constructivist lens.


Joint search-and-rescue exercises. Another area ripe for bilateral cooperation is maritime search-and-rescue (SAR). Although the Indian Coast Guard and Pakistani Maritime Security Agency each maintain their own SAR competencies, the sharing of best practices would benefit both countries. Synergies could be achieved through collaborative workshops, table-top exercises, or exercises at sea.

Co-deployment of UN peacekeeping forces. India and Pakistan are the second- and third-largest troop contributors (respectively) to UN peacekeeping missions – a rare case in which the enduring rivalry has yielded a positive side-effect. As a result, Indian and Pakistani peacekeepers occasionally co-deploy to conflict zones. In several cases, Indian peacekeepers have fallen under the command of a Pakistani officer, and vice versa. Such interactions between Indian and Pakistani blue helmets are positive and should be promoted, so long as they do not interfere with the mandate of the peacekeeping mission. As an additional CBM, both militaries could jointly share best practices in UN peacekeeping with audiences in India, Pakistan, and the rest of the world.

Expansion of people-to-people contacts. The modest expansion of people-to-people ties over the decades has been encouraging, but much more remains to be done. Enhanced connectivity through additional bus, rail and airline routes, complemented by relaxations of the visa regime, is warranted. Further, New Delhi and Islamabad should sponsor student exchange programmes and Track II discussions on topics of social, cultural, educational and business interest. One student exchange programme that currently exists is ‘Exchange for Change’, run by the Citizens Archive of Pakistan and ‘Routes 2 Roots’, an Indian non-governmental organisation. The adoption of these policies, according to Indian academic P. Sahadevan, would contribute to a ‘better understanding of each other country’s problems and perceptions’ and may spawn ‘peace groups and organizations which forge cross-border linkages at the non-governmental.


Of the eight proposals outlined above, some are more easily attainable than others. The exchange of war trophies, for instance, would consume less political capital than an observation mechanism for military exercises. Moreover, their relative attainability tends to mirror the ebbs and flows in bilateral tensions – what appears possible one year may seem impractical the next. Nevertheless, the proposals are low-hanging fruit in that they do not sacrifice either capital’s core security interests. Although domestic political considerations can hinder the negotiation of new CBMs, this again points to the importance of courageous political leadership in both capitals, as well as a recognition of the absolute security benefits to be gained from proposals such as joint search-and-rescue exercises, counter-piracy cooperation, and cooperative reduction of obsolete missile systems.

Ryan W. French is with CNA Analysis and Solutions, Arlington, VA, USA.