One of the best things which has happened this week seems to be the India-Pakistan agreement to increase trade relations from around $2 billion to $6 billion over the next three years. The two countries have also agreed to start joint business ventures, establish banking facilities in each other’s countries that would further ease trade, start an additional trading post, and improve visa facilities for the business community. India has also dropped its objection to the European Union trade quota for Pakistan. Most important, the commerce teams of both countries met after 35 years with a lot of political support from their respective political leadership.
From Pakistan’s perspective, this is an excellent development on three counts.
Firstly, it would contribute to improving Pakistan’s economic situation. This is not just about Indian goods and services coming to Pakistan but vice versa as well. For a country like Pakistan, searching for an independent foreign policy, economic independence is a must which it will get with greater trade opportunities. It wouldn’t take a genius to figure out that Pakistan desperately needs openings for its products and services, especially, given the expansion of the Chinese market into Pakistan. Besides various critical problems like dearth of electricity and gas, one of the major issues now hurting the country is the dumping of Chinese goods and manpower in Pakistan. Not that many would like to admit, but Pakistan’s natural ‘strategic depth’ in terms of trade and economic activities is within the region, especially India, with its expanding economy.
Secondly, purely from a regional peace standpoint, the expansion of trade will naturally increase the stakes that the two countries will have in each other’s peace and stability. This does not mean that they will not contest each other on what is critical to their interests but greater trade will have a force-multiplier effect. Thirdly, from Pakistan’s end, this does not seem to be an initiative taken solely by the political government. According to the grapevine, this has some consent of the military leadership which has always been averse to improving ties with India. Some even suggest that given the current tension with the US military commanders, we were forced to look at ways to improve the country’s economic standing. Hence, the army top brass had to agree with the business community’s point of view of letting trade grow.
However, enhancing relations, even trade ties, cannot be carried out in a vacuum. In order for other projects such as the gas pipeline to take-off, which will be discussed in the follow-up meetings, Pakistan would have to ensure it keeps violence, especially that of the militant outfits, in check. This is not just about putting the leadership of militant outfits behind bars but changing the socio-political narrative that has fueled conflict so far. The understanding of the top military leadership regarding the necessity of cross-border trade ties has to, at some stage, be communicated to the middle and junior management levels of the armed forces and to the civilian bureaucracy as well. I would like to repeat, that this is not about withdrawing our position on issues such as Kashmir, but explaining how politics or geo-politics must be separated from geo-strategy at this stage and communicate this to the lower ranks that might, otherwise, get riled up with what is happening.
Part of changing the narrative is the necessity to address the framing of the enemy and a new trading partner through the media. Someone has to understand that characters like Zaid Hamid, who constantly talk of Ghazwa-e-Hind and establishing a Khilafa to do that, may just be irrelevant to the changing environment and thus should not be given the legitimacy and space they have continued to get thus far. This is necessary particularly to sooth the nerves of young men who join militant outfits and later get out of control when they don’t see any action. The Zaid Hamid narrative adds to their frustration. The media is acclaimed to be independent but it is nationalist as well which means that it will have consideration for national interests. Just like the media played up the atrocities of the Taliban during a certain period that made the Swat operation possible, the media can play a role in, at least, removing obstacles to improving the narrative that can further help with trade ties.
More than money, improving trade ties is about mutually building capacities and infrastructure in a world that will be shaped-up not just by military prowess but largely by economic capacities.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 2nd, 2011.