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Saturday April 20, 2024

Rethinking our future

By Humayun Akhtar Khan
October 04, 2020

There are many developments, external and internal, that Pakistan must manage with skill and finesse.

Externally, the rivalry between the US and China is a challenge for the whole world. Not long ago, the West believed that China played a useful role in the global economy. Today, in the words of the US secretary of state, China is the number one threat to security. That puts Pakistan in a predicament. Until now, it had balanced well its relations with China and the US. While it will still try to do so, the West may expect us to take sides.

This is not the only external challenge Pakistan faces. For decades, tension has marked relations between Pakistan and India. And for many years, instability in Afghanistan has cast a menacing shadow on Pakistan. Even though talks between rival Afghan parties have induced hopes, peace and stability is far from assured. It is time to deal with these enduring issues that have hindered Pakistan’s capacity to grow as an economy and society.

To understand these issues better, my Institute for Policy Reforms held two panel discussions in recent weeks. Some clear messages emerged.

The ‘war on terror’ is over. The West’s priorities have shifted from counterterrorism to rivalry with China. Other than its role in the Afghan peace talks, Pakistan must find a new path to build relations with the West.

A more profound message was that Pakistan’s wellbeing depends on internal reforms of its economy, politics and society. Geopolitical success is not what Pakistan needs immediately. Meaningful foreign policy success will come only through internal strength and less outside dependence.

Let me dwell more on some of the above issues.

For over seventy years, Pakistan and India have been unable to resolve the issues between them. India’s action in Kashmir last August leaves no option except for Pakistan to keep the most minimal of relations with it. What India did was ignoble both on grounds of human rights as well as of international law. While Pakistan has been restrained in its response, no major power has urged India to reverse its disregard of international law and assault on fundamental rights. Instead, India has used menacing tones about AJK and Pakistan. Pakistan’s superior moral position largely goes unheard because of decades of weak governance and an unstable economy.

Friction between the two countries harms both. Two nuclear weapons states forever in a brawl is not just unseemly, it also carries very high risk of miscalculation. By always threatening each other’s existence, both countries must forever stay militarily prepared. This in turn reduces the national dialogue in each state to breast-beating patriotism, hysteria, and ideology. There is not even a hint so far that the two countries have plans to cooperate in meeting the more severe challenges of climate change and water scarcity. They are far larger threats than conflict.

There is another reason for concern. By 2050, Pakistan will have a population of 400 million. India will have over 1.6 billion. This growth in the number of working age people can be a windfall for our economies. Or it could bring about a crisis. It will be a boon if a skilled and educated workforce of young people fuel the wheels of our industries. If this does not happen, and there are not enough jobs or opportunities, it will be a crisis. For our economies to grow, Pakistan and India must trade goods and technology rather than threats and insults. At present, a crisis is the more likely outcome.

From an economic partner, the West now brands China as a strategic competitor. Rather than frame it in the hyperbole of ‘us versus them’, the West must nuance its talk about China. The consequences of an economic collapse of the global economy from the total decoupling that may ensue are far too severe. China has been a market economy for forty years with a high stake in continuing the present global trading and capitalist system. It does not want to disrupt it. Similarly, it is critical that this rivalry stay within safe limits to prevent a catastrophe from any misunderstanding.

Regarding US security, it is hardly possible that China poses a threat to the US mainland. Nor is it a threat to the sea routes through which US trade plies. Moreover, it is unrealistic for the West to hope for an effective alliance against China. As a policy paper of the National University of Singapore suggests “everyone also values its relations with China, and none wants to be drawn into a new cold war against it”.

Dr Anatol Lieven counsels the US to distinguish between its vital and secondary interests. By all means force China to comply with accepted trading practices. But a new cold war will help no one. The outcome of this rivalry, he says, will not depend on military size. It depends on how well the governance system of each state works for their respective citizens. In a recent article, US presidential candidate Joe Biden rightly focuses on reforms at home that would enhance US competitiveness. For Pakistan, relations with China are vital. It should not be asked to choose sides.

That the two main protagonists in Afghanistan began serious deliberations recently is a big move forward. This road to peace will be long. Its success depends entirely on the two Afghan parties. Pakistan must do everything possible to nudge forward the talks. For forty years, instability in Afghanistan has weakened Pakistan’s security. On the other hand, peace and prosperity is good for the region. It would allow Pakistan to link with an energy rich Central Asia.

Lastly, I return to a subject that I touched upon above, and which is fundamental to all policymaking, foreign and domestic. Pakistan must improve governance at home. This must cut across all parts of the government. We must improve human rights, treatment of women, and show more respect to people of other religions. Over many years and across successive governments, cronyism and special interests have become commonplace. Even when it grows, such an economy often foregoes inclusiveness and may even increase inequality.

This has to change. We cannot hold other countries responsible for human rights violations without improving our own record. Likewise, Pakistan cannot reduce its dependence on other economies if it continues with the present model of growth that does not empower businesses or encourage benefits to spread widely.

The above is a whole menu of things to do that we must attend to urgently. To address them fully, we need political stability that encourages a national dialogue and a deep rethink of our goals and policies. It is time to put these matters front and centre of a renewed national agenda.

The writer is chair and CEO Institute for Policy Reforms, and a former commerce minister.