ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan said diplomatic efforts have brought down tension in the Middle East following the recent US-Iran conflict.
“We feel we played our part in bringing down tensions and we have averted war,” Imran said during his interview with Anadolu Agency on Thursday evening. But things are still tense and need some more efforts for a permanent solution, he warned.
Speaking about his country’s relations with Turkey, Imran said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to visit Islamabad in the middle of February and hoped this visit would further strengthen the brotherly relationship between Islamabad and Ankara.
Imran Khan, 67, has completed a one-and-half year in office. In a wide-ranging interview with Anadolu Agency, he discusses challenges and opportunities.
Relations with Turkey
Q: Pakistan’s relation with Turkey has a long history even we know subcontinent Muslims had sent a letter to celebrate the conquest of Istanbul in 1453. This relation and partnership are growing every day. In which areas the two countries can work together and what are the priorities?
PM Imran: First of all, people in Pakistan had this relationship with Turkey, which goes back to the Khilafat movement, which started I think in 1920. And the movement was based on trying to help Turkey when it was being attacked from all sides. People raised a lot of money in what is now Pakistan, also Muslims in India and tried to help Turkey, when it was a very difficult time for the Ottomans. So, it dates back even before that, but that was a significant step which people in Turkey still appreciate, the help given from this part of the world. So that is the basis of this brotherly relationship between the two countries. And now we have the government to the government, a very close relationship, we are enhancing our trade ties. Pakistan is grateful for the way Turkey stood with the people of Kashmir. The statement given by President Erdogan on what is happening to the people of Kashmir by a very fascist racist BJP government was encouraging. So, our relationship every way is getting stronger.
Q: What is the focus of Pakistan’s relations with Turkey? What steps are being taken to boost bilateral trade, investments, economic and defense relations?
PM Imran: Well, we are expecting President Erdogan in the middle of February and when he comes he is bringing various business houses, investors with him. We will have Pakistani businesses and investors meeting their Turkish counterparts. The idea is that we enhance our trading relationship. There are various areas where Turkey can help Pakistan for instance in the mining sector. Pakistan is a country which is full of minerals, but we have not excavated, explored these various minerals like gold and copper. When President Erdogan comes, this is one area, but then there are other areas too. We want technology transfer from Turkey in various areas. So, it will be quite a comprehensive visit. All sorts of ways of economic ties will be discussed, apart from, of course, our strategic and diplomatic ties.
Q: You mentioned about the Khilafat movement. There is another facet of Turkey and South Asia relations. We have entered into the 100th year since the Khilafat movement that started in the Indian sub-continent to help the Ottoman Empire and Turks and that also led to South Asia’s movement for independence. What are the plans to commemorate the year?
PM Imran: This is a very good idea. I did not think of it. I think we should also celebrate 100 years of that very difficult time in which Turkey was going through and when people from this part, what was northern India and of course, Indian Muslims participated in this. So, yes, this is a good idea. We would like to do something to commemorate that. You just told me about it and I suddenly realized that it is a century year and we should have some function to remember that.
Q: Turkey, Pakistan have good relations. Both countries have immense natural beauty. What steps the government is planning to increase people to people contact?
PM Imran: Look, before I became the prime minister, the last place I spent the holiday with my two boys was Istanbul. I went there for a holiday. And my two sons loved it. Because, you know, Istanbul is one of the most historical cities in the world. It has an ancient history and it has the history of the Byzantine and then, of course, the Ottomans is very interesting for people here. So, I took my two sons and we went all over Istanbul for a few days. And yes, there is a lot of interest in tourism in Pakistan. So far, more tourists go to Turkey from Pakistan. Turkey has a highly developed tourism industry but in Pakistan, we have not developed our tourism. Pakistan is a very diverse country. It has 12 climate zones from north to south. It has religious tourism. It houses one of the oldest civilizations, the Indus Valley Civilization. And then, of course, one of the highest mountains in the world. So, it is a diverse country and people in Turkey do not know about Pakistan. We are now developing our tourism.
Q: Since you assumed office, a one-and-half year ago, what has changed in Pakistan?
PM Imran: Well, when my government came to power, we inherited two of the biggest deficits in Pakistan. One the fiscal deficit, which means what we were collecting in the form of tax and the gap in what we were spending. That was the biggest deficit. And the second deficit was the current account deficit. In other words, the dollar volume that is coming into Pakistan was small compared to the dollars going out of Pakistan. It was a huge, the biggest ever deficit in history. So, we had to take steps to stabilize our economy. Because if you have a big current account deficit, it puts pressure on your currency. And our currency, our rupee was falling. It lost almost 35% of its value. And so, the first thing was to stabilize the currency. And for that, we had to contract this big deficit. So, I must congratulate my economic team, they did a great job. We have curtailed the current account deficit by almost 75%. The rupee has stabilized, confidence in our economy is growing, our stock market has gone up. We have a big jump in our foreign investment. So, the country is stable right now. Now, it is a question of keeping it stable. You know, it is still a struggling head. But we are out of the big crisis which we had inherited.
Q: Now, you have taken lots of steps for keeping the economy stable. how can people see these in the streets?
PM Imran: The big deficit not only makes your currency fall, but it also causes inflation and inflation hits the common people. So, at the moment, our inflation is still high. But the currency is stable and the economy is stable. Now, the next challenge for us is to bring down inflation and start growth in the country. So, we have a very ambitious housing plan to construct affordable housing for the less privileged section of the society. The idea of housing is to give affordable housing to ordinary people. At the same time, get the economy moving, provide employment to people. So that is the next program that we are concentrating on to enhance growth rate. So, we can provide jobs to younger people.
Q: Your government is being criticized by the opposition for the economy, politics, and the inability to fight with corruption. What would be your answer to this criticism?
PM Imran: You see, Pakistan inherited a similar situation as to Malaysia. When Mahathir Mohammad came into power, he inherited a big deficit. And the reason for the deficit was the corruption of the previous ruling elite. The same thing happened in Pakistan. The reason why we were bankrupt because we had corrupt governments for 10 years, the same thing happened with Mahathir Mohammad. But their crisis was not as bad as in Pakistan. So, the problem we face now also is this corrupt status quo.
The corrupt mafias that were displaced, they then are constantly trying to bring down the government or destabilize the government. If we had proper opposition, they would have been applauding the steps taken by our government to stabilize the economy. There was a possibility we could have defaulted on our loans, our foreign loans. Because we had a huge amount of debt servicing to do and if had we defaulted on our loan. Then if inflation would have been doubled in Pakistan, our currency would have lost more value. So rather than congratulating the government for stabilizing the economy, they are worried that if we succeed, this political mafia will be buried dead, and buried forever. So that is why they are desperate and they are criticizing the economy. They have penetrations. They have been in power for the past 30 years. So, they have deep roots. So that’s what we face. It is not a normal opposition. It is a corrupt ruling elite that has been displaced by us.
Q: Instead of taking loans, why Pakistan is unable to use its geographical location to boost trade and make it a regional trade hub?
PM Imran: You see Pakistan is probably in one of the best strategic locations anywhere in the world. On our south, we have the Gulf, the world’s biggest oil and energy supply oil and gas. On the north, we have China, the biggest market, and then we have Central Asia through Afghanistan, and Iran on the other side. And then we have India on the other side, which is the second biggest market. So Pakistan has the greatest location in the middle of the world, which is moving ahead in the future, the economy that is growing very fast as China, and then India of course, is a big economy and then you have the energy supply. So, the location of Pakistan is as good if you look ahead, better than any other country in the world. The second thing we have is the second youngest population in the world. We have 220 million people, a young population. We are now improving our governance system, and ease of doing business. We were one of the top 10 countries which went up 28 points in ease of doing business. So, if we can keep progressing in the direction, then Pakistan would become the hub of investment.
Q: Climate change is Pakistan’s one of the biggest problems in the future. You are one of the most affected countries. What has Pakistan done to reduce the effects and what are the main problems that might hit Pakistan in the near future?
PM Imran: The climate change is going to affect the whole world and Pakistan, of course, is one of the countries that is going to be affected more because we rely upon the water in our rivers. Nearly 80% of the water in the rivers comes from the glaciers in the mountains. Now as the weather warms up because of climate change and global warming, then the glaciers have started melting at a faster pace. So, in the future, the worry is that water in our rivers will be reduced if the glaciers keep melting at a faster pace. We have started a massive reforestation campaign. We have set ourselves a target of 10 billion trees in the next four years. And secondly, we have decided that we will change our energy mix. That is 40% would be renewables in the next 10 years. So that carbon dioxide emissions are decreased. But of course, Pakistan will do whatever it can. But, the whole world has to join in if it has to, you know to reduce the impact of global warming.
Q: Blockade in Jammu Kashmir has now crossed six months. What has been changed positively since then in Kashmir? Do you see any outcomes of your efforts in the international area?
PM Imran: You see, first of all, to understand what is happening in Kashmir, you have to understand what is happening in India. And what’s happening in India is that India has been taken over by extremist racist ideology, which is called the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] and this ideology believes that India belongs to Hindus only. It’s called a Hindutva. This ideology was inspired by the Nazis in the 1930s. They believe, just like the Nazis believed in the alien race, the German race, they believed in the Hindu race. The only problem is they have 500 million people who will be excluded in India from this exclusive racist ideology. These RSS extremists assassinated Gandhi [India’s freedom icon]. They were declared as a terrorist organization in India three times. Now, since they have taken over India, the minorities have been squeezed. There has been violence against minorities, specifically Muslims. But in Kashmir what they have done is they have violated their constitution. And they have changed the status of Kashmir, unilaterally. Kashmir is a dispute between Pakistan and India, a dispute acknowledged by the world community by the UN Security Council. And so, what they have done is they have acted against the Security Council resolutions. Then there was a bilateral agreement, Shimla agreement between Pakistan and India. They have gone against that and they have annexed Kashmir. But to do that, they have clamped down a curfew on 8 million people of Kashmir for almost six months now. And they have 900,000 troops there. They have put all the leadership in prisons. They have whisked away thousands of young teenagers into various prisons outside Kashmir. So, it is a serious situation there. And so, Pakistan, of course, has raised it on every forum and at the UN, with humanitarian organizations and Amnesty International. We are very appreciative of President Erdogan because he condemned it in the UN. What is happening in Kashmir is illegal and violates humanitarian laws.
Q: How long can Kashmiris live in this condition? What is your future strategy for solving this issue?
PM Imran: A strategy has to be to approach the world, organizations like the UN. And the reason is very important because these international organizations came into existence primarily to stop this sort of injustice going on in the world. There is a danger what India has done in Kashmir, will not die down. There is going to be violence in Kashmir. There will be violence because whenever they lift the curfew, people will come out protesting against it. And when their protests, they have 900,000 troops, which will use violence against these citizens. And we felt that this will spill over to Pakistan. And that is why the UN should act.
Q: India has taken other steps about Muslims, such as adopting the citizenship law, Babri Mosque decision of the court. And do you think that it will have any effect on Pakistan because if they start to make this rule and exclude Muslims as a situation like Myanmar will emerge here?
PM Imran: Well, what they have done in India is that they have brought this legislation, the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens. And basically, it is targeting the 200 million Muslims living in India. This is exactly what happened in Myanmar when they first started the Registration Act. And that is how they exclude the Muslims. And then the genocide of Muslims took place. I am afraid this is where it is heading in India. Because this was always the ideology of RSS. People did not know about this, because they did not know RSS. But anyone who has studied ideology of founding fathers of RSS will understand that this government is exactly going on that path by trying to exclude the Muslims as second class citizens, or even by deregistration them through the citizen act. But their problem is that they are dealing with 200 million Muslims. It is a huge minority. And I think there will be problems within India. It will polarize India because not just the Muslims will stand up against it. I think the other minorities which are Sikhs, Christians, even the lower castes, even the tribal people, and I think this, this would be about 500 million people in India which will be excluded from this, because of exclusive racist RSS ideology. And therefore, I think even more than us, the main damage will be done to Indian society itself.
Q: Is there any possible danger that Pakistan and Bangladesh will face an immigration problem if the situation in India forces these people to leave the country?
PM Imran: I think Bangladesh is already worried because in Assam they deregistered almost 2 million people there. And 60-70% are Muslims. I do not know the exact number. But what happens to these people, whom they say are not part Indian citizens. Where will they go? Bangladesh has already said they are not taking them. So where will these people go?
Q: There is a trade war between some Western countries and China. So how much this trade war could affect Pakistan. Also, China is currently facing a coronavirus epidemic?
PM Imran: Well, the coronavirus is we hope that it will be contained. We pray for China because, you know, it is awful what they must be going through there. So, and of course, Pakistan is extending, all help possible. I cannot say about this trade war between the U.S. and China. How long this will go on, but it does not affect Pakistan it affects China.
Q: Pakistan is working with China in many areas especially on CPEC, but some western countries saying that CPEC is getting your country into a debt trap from China? Secondly, are you negotiating with other countries like Turkey to join CPEC?
PM Imran: Firstly, the debt from China is a very small part, a small percentage of our total debt portfolio. So, the thing is quite unfounded that Pakistan is getting into a debt trap of China. Secondly, yes, the connectivity, we hope that when the Turkish delegation comes in a couple of weeks, we hope to involve them in using CPEC for further connectivity, and we hope to involve turkey in this [CPEC].
Q: Your government is trying to improve regional stability especially bringing peace in Afghanistan is one of your main international politics moves. What is the last point the world and your efforts came? Can you see any positive future as outcomes of these efforts?
PM Imran: Well, let me just state the fact that I firmly believe that military conflicts do not solve problems. They increase problems. They have unintended consequences, you try to solve one problem, it creates far more problems. And we have seen this. We have seen the two Afghan Wars, one the Soviets, when they invaded Afghanistan, and we saw the sort of bloodshed that took place, and then the impact on Pakistan, we saw the war on terror again, that then this time, the US in Afghanistan the impact on Pakistan.
So, I am a firm believer that conflicts are not a way to solve problems. And therefore, we would try everything to avoid another conflict.
Last thing we want as a neighbor, Iran fighting with brotherly country, Saudi Arabia, or the US and Iran in some sort of conflict. Because we believe everyone will suffer and no one wins over. It is just that people get damaged less, but everyone gets damaged. And we should learn from the experience of China. While this war on terror was going on, China was building this great infrastructure. You look at the train infrastructure, I mean, it is probably the best in the world. So, they were putting the resources in developing infrastructure, while these conflicts were taking place and look at all over the Muslim world, from Syria to, you know, to Libya to Iraq, what happened there Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, it is just death and destruction. So, I feel Pakistan’s role will be now to put out fires to play the role of conciliation, getting people together rather than joining any conflicts.
Q: You are trying very hard not to have any war in the region. Do you see any outcomes?
PM Imran: I think, you know, we can only try our best. The Almighty only expects us to try our best the rest we leave in his hands.
Q: So far, any results for “putting out fires” — because as you mentioned again, Iran is a neighbor, you have friendly ties with Gulf countries, and also [US President Donald ] Trump asked you acting as “go between” with Iran — any results for that diplomatic movement?
PM Imran: Well, after the missile attack in Saudi Arabia on the oil facility, Pakistan played its part. We spoke to Saudi Arabia, we went to Iran, spoke to the US last September, October. And actually, we feel we played our apart bringing down tensions. But of course, you know, there has to be some more for a permanent solution. At the moment, things are still tense. But for the time, I feel that we have averted war. There was a time when it seemed that there could be a conflict. But at the moment, it looks as if things are cooling down. However, I think more efforts are needed and we will be trying our best.
Q: If war has been averted, is not that a piece of big news?
PM Imran: Well, averted, we think we averted a conflict. I mean, this is not talking about when the missile strikes took place in Saudi Arabia when we tried and we tried our best to play our part. But, you know, we can only try and we should always try because there is nothing worse than a conflict amongst neighbors. We have seen what happened in Afghanistan, and especially in the Gulf. If there is a conflict, oil prices will go up. All the poor countries in the world will suffer.