First it was opposition at home. Now it’s scepticism abroad.
But Pakistan’s civilian leadership is standing firm behind its decision to allow the commerce ministry to engage with India on normalisation of bilateral trade relations, and the eventual granting of the most favoured nation (MFN) status.
“There is absolutely no question of backtracking on the cabinet’s approval of trade normalisation with India,” Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said on Saturday. “I want to completely dismiss any indication that there’s any retraction on what we said.”
Earlier on Friday, an unnamed Indian government official alleged that Islamabad was “backtracking” on the issue in the face of domestic opposition. Many in Pakistan were also sceptical of the cabinet’s approval for such a move, especially after reports of dissent from the military, perceived to be the prime stakeholders in Pakistan’s foreign policy.
Khar, however, dispelled such an impression at a press conference in Lahore on Saturday and said the cabinet’s decision trumps the military’s perceived apprehensions in this regard.
Refuting the news of an emergency meeting with the military at the foreign office, Khar said it was a scheduled meeting with military’s representatives who are important stakeholders on the issue nonetheless.
Gilani backs Khar
Khar was backed by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani who stressed that the cabinet’s approval is necessary for any negotiations with another country and that is precisely what it had provided to the commerce ministry vis-à-vis trade normalisation with India and granting it the MFN status.
The MFN is not a document or a certificate, Gilani said separately on Saturday.
It is a proposal which the commerce ministry would work on with its Indian counterpart, he added.
The two countries’ commerce secretaries will meet mid-November to hammer out the details of the trade agreement, including removal of discriminatory tariffs and non-tariff barriers.
‘Tangible progress’ with India
Khar said the move comes following tangible progress in relations with India.
India’s support to Pakistan in gaining a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council and removal of its blockade at the World Trade Organisation for Pakistan’s preferential access to the European Union markets were cited by Khar as tangible confidence-building measures between the two countries.
Prime Minister Gilani would meet his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh at the Saarc summit in Male next week and further discuss the ongoing dialogue process, she added.
The scepticism across the border also appeared to soothe on Saturday with Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai saying the Cabinet decision on MFN is an “indication of forward movement.”
He did urge patience though.
“The actual implementation [of MFN] would be a culmination of the normalisation process which could take some time,” Mathai told reporters in New Delhi. Pakistan’s commerce secretary, however, was more upbeat.
“We are extremely hopeful that there will be a major breakthrough in the next round of commerce secretaries’ meetings on November 14-15 in Delhi,” Zafar Mahmood told reporters. “We will finalise all the details in that meeting.”
(With additional input from AFP and Reuters)
Published in The Express Tribune, November 6th, 2011.