Reorienting foreign affairs

Govt should follow a multi-pronged approach to develop economic relations with countries to its north and northeast

Shahid Javed Burki May 18, 2020
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice president of the World Bank

This article was prompted by a recent study done for Brookings India by Shivshankar Menon who served as the national security adviser to Dr Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister. Singh was prime minister from 2004 to 2014 and Menon worked with him from January 2010 to May 2014 and made contributions to bring up India’s rate of economic growth. He is currently a Distinguished Fellow at Brookings India. He is the author of the book, Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy, from which the Brookings study titled “India’s Foreign Affairs Strategy” is drawn. In the article today, I will provide a brief summary of the argument presented by Menon and then go on and suggest how that might be relevant for the making of Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Menon’s main contention is that policymakers in New Delhi should be optimistic about India’s future in a rapidly changing world. The escalating contest between the United States and China has opened up space for India. “Seventy years after independence, India is better placed and has capabilities that it never had before,” he writes. This is for three reasons. One, India has found a way for accelerating its rate of economic growth. For a number of years it was one of the fastest growing large economies in the world. Two, America’s growing concern about the challenges presented to it by China has opened possibilities for India in the Pacific. Blocked as it has been by Pakistan that sits on the top of India, it should reorient its economy towards the east rather than remain fixated with the north and the northwest. Three, it should make an intelligent use of its demographic advantage and concentrate on increasing the export potential of the service sector. India has already done well in some parts of this sector — for a number of years it was the favoured destination for outsourcing of activities that needed a combination of high technology and trained manpower — and could expand its presence in other service areas such as health and education. India is already a destination for “health tourism” for the members of the country’s large diasporas in North America and Europe.

These three conclusions also apply to Pakistan. Islamabad has already moved into the Chinese orbit and as a result of the way the US President, Donald Trump, is managing his country’s approach, Pakistan’s presence in the Chinese growing sphere of influence would become more pronounced. While India increasingly looks to the east, Pakistan should reach out to its northeast and the north. And, the country has a population that is even younger than that of India’s. It, too, should focus on developing the service sector. That said the most important part of the strategy would be the geographic reorientation of foreign policy.

For decades after becoming an independent state, Pakistan remained concerned about India’s attitude towards it. The Indian leadership, while accepting the idea of partitioning the colony of British India on the basis of religion and culture, did not fully reconcile itself to the creation of a Muslim state that would flank it on the northwest and the northeast. It got deeply involved in breaking up the original Pakistan and creating Bangladesh as an independent Bengali state. Islamabad reacted by attempting to strengthen militarily. To achieve that objective, it received, in abundance, the US assistance which was not meant to build its military strength relative to that of India. Washington had its own reasons for coming to Pakistan’s help. In the 1980s, it wanted Islamabad’s help to push the invading Soviet Union forces out of Afghanistan. In the 2000s, it was Afghanistan again that was the focus of American attention. The Taliban, a group of Pakhtun fighters involved in the fight against the occupation of their country by the Soviets, did not want Moscow’s forces to be replaced by that of Washington’s. This time around, Pakistan had good reasons not to throw in its lot entirely with the Americans. Pakistan’s policy towards the Taliban became a contentious issue with the Americans and has remained so to this day. Washington’s interest in the area of which Pakistan is an important part became important for Islamabad in designing its approach to the world outside its borders.

Pakistan’s geo-political situation has changed dramatically in recent years, especially after January 2017 when Donald Trump moved into the White House. Islamabad needs to work closely with China and connect itself to the countries to its north, not only Afghanistan but also the five Central Asia “Stans” — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. These five countries were part of the USSR for decades but were only allowed to become independent once Moscow gave up communism as the state ideology. Large powers don’t readily give up the areas on which they have exercised total control. Moscow withdrew from Central Asia since the region did not fit into its new worldview. For some time after the breakup of the USSR, it was interested in developing close relations with the US and Western Europe. Moscow was admitted into the club of rich nations — the G7 — which became G8. The Russians wanted to be fully integrated into the Western economic system. From that perspective, hanging on to Central Asia made little strategic sense. That was before Vladimir Putin rose to become Russian President. He was interested in Russia regaining its former glory. Had he been in that position when the USSR collapsed, it is doubtful that he would have allowed the Central Asian countries to become independent.

It was in this changing geopolitical system that China began to redefine its own ambitions. It did not wish to play the second fiddle to Washington in the Pacific and the Asian continent. It was also interested in developing its Western provinces that were under-populated and under-developed. That called for improving connectivity and bringing Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia closer to Beijing’s strategic interests. It first launched initiatives that began with the construction of the Karakoram Highway that connected Pakistan’s northern areas with Kashghar in Xinjiang in China’s west. The highway became an important component of the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor investment programme and CPEC was eventually incorporated into President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Islamabad should follow a multi-pronged approach to develop strong economic relations with the countries to its north and northeast. These should be based on road and rail connectivity with Afghanistan, China and the “Central Asian Five”. It should work closely with Afghanistan to ensure that the Taliban, when they finally join the governing system in Afghanistan, work to modernise their country economically and socially. For this to happen, Pakistan should, with China’s involvement, create an Expanded Central Asian common market that would include the Five Stans along with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 18th, 2020.

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