Saturday September 18, 2021

Affairs not so foreign


The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.

I read with interest the recent news reports of a dialogue being held in Islamabad on national security, deterrence and regional stability in South Asia.

With India and Iran inking an agreement on developing the Chabahar port in the Persian Gulf, about 100 miles west of Gwadar, some defence strategists in Pakistan have raised new alarms about Pakistan’s security. They are seeing the planned trade route linking Mumbai to Chabahar through the sea and Chabahar to Afghanistan – and subsequently Central Asia – by land as a security threat to Pakistan. This view was also shared by two former defence secretaries and military commanders, Lt-Gen (r) Asif Yasin Malik and Lt-Gen (r) Nadeem Lodhi.

Some days ago, Sartaj Aziz, adviser to the PM on foreign relations, had expressed a different view and in fact endorsed what the Iranian Ambassador to Pakistan, Mehdi Honardost, had said. That Chabahar and Gwadar can be developed into allied ports and a cooperative agreement can benefit both Iran and Pakistan. The Iranian ambassador spoke about coming closer on different counts including Iran’s commitment to provision of energy resources to Pakistan and further development of commercial ties between the two countries. As far as Pakistan’s internal affairs are concerned, it is obvious that there is a divergence of views between the civilian and military arms of the government.

Whenever there is an agreement between India and one of our other neighbours or between India and the US, some of our defence analysts begin to blame the Foreign Office for its incapacity to get such agreements between India and other countries scuttled in the first place through diplomatic offensive or its weakness in not being to counter the isolation Pakistan increasingly faces in the region as well as internationally. It is also said time and again that one reason for our diplomatic failure or in some cases underachievement is that we do not have a full time foreign minister.

I completely disagree with the argument that blames our Foreign Office for any failures on the diplomatic front. It is obvious to anyone who has sophomore-level knowledge and understanding that Pakistan’s foreign policy paradigm is subservient to the country’s defence policy paradigm. While there is merit in the argument about guarding our external security and territorial integrity, like any other state, the problem is that it is the only paradigm in which some important policymakers and military strategists can think and reflect. All other issues and concerns are completely ignored. If security is only about territorial integrity and does not include human security, economic development, industrial progress and social welfare, we will not remain stuck where we are – we will go even further down the ladder.

It is not about having a full time minister either. One seasoned advisor and one experienced special assistant to the prime minister aided by fairly competent and trained staff should suffice if the Foreign Office is allowed to develop a foreign policy which is neither independent of security concerns nor driven by a narrow understanding of these concerns alone.

We have to see what benefits our people in the long run. Needless to say, 23 million hover above the poverty line and an equal number is below that line, 25 million children of school-going age are out of school, and above all, our population will reach 350 million by 2050 if we keep growing the way we are. We are in desperate need for economic development and social welfare.

Pakistan is not being isolated in case of Chabahar. It is being bypassed on its own accord. Afghan trucks cannot go beyond Peshawar. Indian trucks have to offload in Wagah. The historic Grand Trunk Road from Kabul to Kolkata is virtually blocked for transit between Afghanistan and India. We could have actively found ways to create that corridor and benefit from it. We could have asked for similar access to Indian markets, Nepal and Bangladesh.

The land route is far cheaper and more feasible than a sea route in case of the Saarc region. When we were only thinking about our historic problems with India at the time of deciding not to give access to our neighbours to each other through our territory, why did we not think that Afghanistan and India would eventually create an alternative route? Why did we believe that Iran would not want to benefit for its economic gains by getting India to invest in its infrastructure?

Even now, some of our strategic analysts like Lt-Gen Lodhi think that we should use China’s influence for fixing such problems. Lodhi thinks that Iran is more akin to listening to us and paying heed to Pakistan’s concerns and it should be involved in the CPEC. He is of the view that we should formalise our defence and strategic relationship with China rather than keep it unwritten. Pakistan has actually been pursuing a comprehensive defence pact with China for some years.We have different kinds of agreements in place but something more substantial is what some policymakers in Pakistan have looked for. But that hasn’t come along for a reason.

China considers Pakistan its friend, not its ward. Understandably, it has similar economic interests in India, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia as it has in Pakistan. It is making investments in other countries as well and is in the process of developing more effective commercial ties with India.

We have to come out of this age-old psyche of ours – depending on other countries to fix problems with our immediate neighbours or in the South Asian region. China and Pakistan are close to each other and we must cherish that relationship. Not only should our countries mutually benefit but we should also learn from China on how to tackle poverty, provide universal health and education and ensure rapid mechanisation of agriculture and appropriation of industrialisation. But we must not start seeing China as we saw the US during the cold war. There is no single country in the world that will provide a panacea for all our ills and shield us from all possible threats.

In the final analysis, it all boils down to the relationship between Pakistan and India. I reiterate now what has been said so many times before. But it is important it be said and said again until the power elites in these two countries decide to look once with some compassion at the 800 million poor in South Asia.

There is a school of thought in both countries which holds this view with conviction that the normalisation of relations between Pakistan and India is impossible. Peace can perhaps be maintained but there is little hope for meaningful improvement in ties. The idea is the same but the reasons for holding this view are different in India than in Pakistan. If these people continue to succeed, there will be insignificant progress for common people in South Asia.

Pakistan will suffer more. We will not only be bypassed, our paranoia will increase as well and consequently our isolation will increase. The CPEC will only serve China if we are not linked to our neighbours and cannot trade openly and develop commerce and industry in the region. The whole country will only become a corridor. But Pakistan will keep dragging India down as well. Chabahar is one example. It is an expensive proposition to build a port and activate a sea route spread over hundreds if not thousands of miles. It could have been much easier over land through Pakistan.

Therefore, it is to the benefit of South Asian states (and here we include the Saarc states and Iran) that they come closer to each other on their own and nurture that inherent historic link between their peoples which they do not share with any other nation outside this region. We are not foreign to each other. Neither a non-interfering China nor an interfering US will ever be able to resolve our issues.

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