WASHINGTON -- Pakistan's leader on Tuesday said he is ready to hold substantive peace talks with India aimed at resolving the two nations' arms race and other longstanding areas of dispute.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a speech at the United States Institute of Peace said improving relations with India "is one of my favorite subjects."
"We would like to pick up the threads from where we left off in 1999 and then move forward," Sharif said at the nonpartisan federal institution in Washington.
As Pakistani prime minister in February 1999, Sharif joined with then-Indian Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee in signing the Lahore Declaration, which committed India and Pakistan to giving each other prior notice of ballistic-missile tests. It also called for them to hold two-way talks about improving mutual trust on nuclear-weapon and conventional-military issues.
The signing of the Lahore Declaration is seen by international observers as the apex in Pakistan-India nuclear confidence-building efforts. Three months later Pakistani troops crossed into the Indian-controlled section of the disputed region of Kashmir. The ensuing brief war led to a breakdown in bilateral relations and the reinvigoration of weapons development by both countries. Sharif then was toppled in an October 1999 military coup led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who did little in his nearly decade in power to resolve outstanding issues with India.
Sharif was sworn in as prime minister for the third time this past June after his party won the general election in May.
"We've … been in a very unfortunate arms race" for about "66 years," said Sharif. He has played a significant role in South Asia's nuclear-weapons buildup, as he authorized Pakistan's first nuclear explosions in 1998. "I believe that we need to get out of this situation."
Foreign analysts believe India and Pakistan are gradually growing their respective nuclear arsenals, seeking to enhance both their quantities and capabilities. New Delhi is estimated to possess between 90 and 110 nuclear warheads, while Islamabad likely has between 100 and 120, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's assessment. Observers also believe the longtime rivals are boosting their fissile-material production capabilities.
Sharif said if Pakistan and India had "not wasted our resources in a never-ending arms race," both nations would be prosperous countries by now.
Nuclear-weapons programs are significant investments for countries. Pakistan is estimated by various organizations to spend over $2 billion annually on its atomic-weapons efforts.
Sharif maintained there is domestic support inside Pakistan for resolving all outstanding issues with India through dialogue.
"I believe very strongly that both countries of course will have to sit down together," Sharif said, adding that all outstanding issues, including the dispute over Kashmir, could be resolved if they are "seriously addressed."
A final resolution to the territorial dispute over control of Kashmir will have to be endorsed by "the people of all three sides," said Sharif, referring to Pakistan, India and insurgents in Kashmir.
"Kashmir of course is a very difficult issue … but I think by sitting and talking we will find some way to resolve" it, he said.
Sharif met briefly with his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, in New York City in late September, when they agreed to cooperate on lowering bilateral tensions that had sprouted up again this year over several lethal cross-border killings.
"Our message is simple," Sharif said on Tuesday in Washington. "Future prosperity and economic development in South Asia depends on peace and security in the region, therefore all of us have a stake in working for these noble objectives."
Sharif is scheduled to meet on Wednesday with President Obama at the White House. Earlier this week, the Obama administration acknowledged it had restored some military assistance to Islamabad that was frozen in 2011 following disagreements over how to handle extremist groups operating in Pakistan.