The recent fighting in Kashmir has been the most intense between India and Pakistan in 30 years. Clearly the Cold War assumption that nuclear-armed adversaries will avoid even conventional military engagements hasn't transplanted itself to South Asia.
Both sides express confidence that they can keep things from escalating. The risks of miscalculation are unacceptably high, however -- for them and for the world. The time has come to settle the source of the problem by fixing the disputed Himalayan borders.
In the current confrontation, there is good evidence that Pakistan supported the infiltration of heavily armed fighters into the remote and sparsely populated area just north of the Srinagar-Leh road. It apparently hoped to focus the attention of the world on Kashmir and to force movement toward the plebiscite directed by the U.N. resolutions of 50 years ago. Even those sympathetic to Pakistan and its position on Kashmir, however, will have no patience for flirting with nuclear disaster.
India's determination to evict these fighters is understandable. The terrain limits its choice of military options, but the risk inherent in the use of combat aircraft so close to the line of control between the two countries underlines the basic danger.
Both unofficial and official quarters in New Delhi stress that Pakistan must respect the line of control. This was a key provision in the 1972 Simla agreement, which concluded the last war between India and Pakistan and has governed their relations since. It is a good starting point. Both sides have agreed to the line -- despite recent Pakistani statements casting doubt on it -- and separating potential combatants is surely the first step toward a less dangerous region. The U.S. government and other international actors have endorsed this as a basic principle, and it needs to be the central point in the hoped-for dialogue between the two foreign ministers.
But India and Pakistan -- and their friends -- need to take this principle one step further. Unresolved border issues involve not only India and Pakistan but China. The disputes date back at least to Indian and Pakistani independence, although the territory controlled by each of these countries basically has been stable since 1965. All three countries have nuclear weapons, and all are politically attached to their full territorial claims. The chances of peaceful territorial adjustments are therefore nil, and the dangers of territorial adjustment by war too horrible to contemplate.
The answer is a freeze. This means turning the India-Pakistan line of control and the current India-China line of actual control into recognized international borders and giving final recognition to the China-Pakistan border settlement that India disputes.
Each of the three countries would gain clear sovereignty over some territory that is now disputed, and each would lose the right to some territory it now claims. But recognized borders and a strong international consensus that they must be respected ultimately would benefit the countries far more in reduced risk and could be the beginning of more constructive relationships.
This settlement would not resolve the Kashmir problem. The 10-year insurgency in the Indian-administered Valley of Kashmir arose because of years of alienation of Kashmiris from India, brought on by political manipulation and misgovernment. The Kashmiris need to accept the settlement to provide the needed stability. For this to happen, the Indian government would have to allow the development of a popular representative political process in Kashmir. This in turn would require expanded internal autonomy, which might also be extended to other parts of India.
Negotiating this package would be difficult for all parties, perhaps most of all for Pakistan, which would have to accept as final the loss of the Valley of Kashmir, the last prize from the partition of 50 years ago. China traditionally has taken a detached view of South Asia and could be reluctant to change its border claims because of trouble stirred up by two lesser powers, as it regards India and Pakistan.
In India, all political parties formally have rejected dropping territorial claims against either Pakistan or China. Autonomy for Kashmir, while privately accepted by many, is a hot-button issue for the Hindu nationalist government. Decisions of this magnitude probably cannot be seriously discussed until after the current election campaign.
The international community should encourage the parties to move promptly toward such a far-reaching settlement, hard as it may be for them to give up their position. If the past month is any guide, the dangers of allowing the present situation to drift are unacceptable.
Teresita C. Schaffer is director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Howard B. Schaffer is director of studies at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Both are retired U.S. ambassadors with long experience in South Asia.