By Paul de Bendern
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Expectations of a breakthrough in peace talks between India and Pakistan on Wednesday remain low, but the fact the nuclear armed rivals keep talking is a sign that neither side wants to slide back toward conflict in the world's most dangerous region.
Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna and his Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar will meet in New Delhi to agree on confidence-building measures, such as relaxing trade and travel restrictions across a ceasefire line dividing disputed Kashmir but are unlikely to make any headway on the thorny territorial issue of Kashmir itself, or on fighting militancy.
"In this case, talking means not going to war. That is the idea. Dialogue is not to resolve the issues, it's to tell the world they're not going to war," said Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian foreign secretary and a former ambassador to the United States.
Peace across the heavily militarized frontier between the nuclear-armed nations is crucial for the United States to draw-down troops and stabilize Afghanistan without sparking off a proxy war between New Delhi and Islamabad in that country.
India and Pakistan in February resumed a formal peace process broken off after the 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants, which killed 166 people.
The lack of controversy in meetings this year has raised hopes, at least that talking is a step in the right direction.
"We have learned lessons from history but are not burdened by history. We can move forward as good, friendly neighbors who have a stake in each other's future and who understand the responsibility that both the countries have to the region and within the region," Khar told reporters in New Delhi on Tuesday.
The focus on Wednesday will be as much on 34-year-old Khar, Pakistan's first female and youngest-ever foreign minister, who was appointed to the post last week. Krishna is 79 years old.
Khar's first major meeting in Delhi was with senior Kashmiri separatist leaders, including the hard-liner Syed Ali Gilani, a sign of how the disputed region occupies the prime position in ties between Pakistan and India.
NO 'BIG BANG' EXPECTATIONS
"We have told Pakistan we are willing to discuss all issues with an open mind," a senior Indian government source said.
"It will be an incremental process. It's not a 'big bang' thing," said the source, who declined to be identified, referring to the unlikelihood of any dramatic breakthrough.
As in previous peace efforts, progress has been slow and vulnerable to any attempts by Pakistan-based militants to try to trigger a war by launching another Mumbai-style attack.
But both sides kept their cool in the aftermath of a triple bomb attack in Mumbai this month that killed at least 23 people and injured more than 130. Police have yet to identify the suspects but security analysts suspect the Indian Mujahideen.
The countries, which announced they had tested nuclear weapons in 1998, have fought three full-scale wars since winning independence in 1947, two of them over Kashmir.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited New Delhi last week and urged India and Pakistan to normalize ties.
Distrust runs deep and U.S. plans to start pulling troops out of Afghanistan, a country both India and Pakistan have long competed over for influence, adds a fresh challenge to an already volatile, yet strategic region.
The different political and military landscapes in each country also complicate relations -- Pakistan has a powerful military and a weak government while India's government takes the lead with the military there to defend the country.
"The trust deficit has to be removed on both sides," said a Pakistani Foreign Ministry official, who declined to be identified.
(Additional reporting by C.J. Kuncheria and Matthias Williams in New Delhi and Chris Allbritton and Augustine Anthony in Islamabad; Editing by Robert Birsel)