How to deal with our myriad challenges?
A little more than a year ago, while addressing at the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, Chinese President Xi Jinping termed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as the ‘Project of the Century’. “Over 2,000 years ago,” observed President Xi, in an attempt to provide blueprints for the future roadmap of the BRI, “our ancestors, trekking across vast steppes and deserts, opened the transcontinental passage connecting Asia, Europe and Africa, known today as the Silk Road. … These ancient silk routes opened windows of friendly engagement among nations, adding a splendid chapter to the history of human progress.”
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an ambitious trade plan spanning a large part of the globe from Asia to Africa and to Europe. It portrays globalization as its main theme. As the BRI gains momentum and brings more countries to its fold, it can be seen that the Indus Valley, along with many others, forms a crucial part of this connectivity infrastructure. No wonder then that as part of the BRI initiative, an exclusive corridor, that is, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), passes through Pakistan.
But deepened connectivity is not the only constituent of the dominant ethos prevailing in the world, as the US is witnessing a sense of increasing isolationism. The incumbent President of the United States, Donald Trump, seems intent on building walls all around the US – a physical one along the line where the US borders Mexico and a virtual one along the country’s Pacific coastline. In an effort to cut the trade deficits with friends and adversaries alike, the President has put large tariffs on goods imported from China, Canada and Europe (Germany). The exercise that has the potential to lead the world to a full-blown trade war is feared to drag more countries into the trade disputes.
So, what actually forms the core of the current international system, then? The Trade War? Or deepening globalization? Probably a raw mixture of both, for the time being at least.
The United Sates cannot completely shut its borders to trade, and the world also needs increasing investment in the connectivity infrastructure to progress and prosper. “Peaches and plums do not speak, but they are so attractive that a path is formed below the trees,” a Chinese saying goes. The world is craving for increased global trade to make countries’ economies grow and also to reduce poverty and create jobs. There is, therefore, no alternate to global trade.
So, what does this global scenario mean for Pakistan? The brief answer is: ‘quite contrary to what the pessimists are telling’. The current trajectory of the international system offers a great deal of favours to Pakistan. The CPEC is its more vivid reflection.
One can claim – with certain reservations, though – that it is only India that is trying to limit Pakistan’s political and economic role in the world. But beyond that, there exists hardly any broad array of arrangements in the design of the current international system that may work to intensify unfriendliness to Pakistan. Unless we become our own enemy and start killing our choices (which we may do, I fear, because we are too much mired in strategic notions), there is no greater design in the making to push the world to form a hostile ring around us.
There is no blinking at the fact that our diplomatic position in today’s world is very feeble and that the country has been placed on the FATF’s grey list is but its latest manifestation. But, it has a lot to do with our weak governance system; that is less efficient and ill-defined: the governmental authority is essentially diffused (between civilians and military) and is not centralized. A single institution, the military, plays a greater role than it ought to be and in many instances, therefore, we see more military in our policies than a politico-economic course of action.
In fact, right now, the diffusion of governmental authority among different centres, especially the military, is the central problem confronting the country, and, hence, all the foreign policy executives, strategists and scholars. The result of such a least-desirous configuration is that each subset of political and strategic elites struggles to project and preserve its special interests, compromising on the objective pursuit of ‘national interest’.
Of course, military has a deep network of connections in the country and beyond. And, because it contains sufficient resources and determination, it is certainly more than capable of imprinting its views upon the foreign affairs.
Consequently, our diplomacy fails for most of its part to remain proactive, open and relevant in an increasingly changing world.
But, even then, our current diplomatic position is not substantially as worse as it had been during many times in the past. The rule of Musharraf, a military dictator, is a tragic case in point. The people might remember the increasing rate of militant attacks, suicide bombings, drone attacks, cross-border infiltrations, and especially, the Western mantra of ‘double game’ that devastated the country’s international standing.
Pakistan is right to criticize the US policies for needlessly blaming Pakistan for many of the crimes that the US itself is responsible for. But, even then, we need to start with a deep look at realities at home. Pakistan is mired in myriad economic challenges, and is facing institutional ineffectiveness, governance failures, alienation among the youth, water crisis, and, most notably, widespread extremism, that has cost us direly in domestic as well as international affairs.
Pakistan’s foreign policy has always depended on scenarios of threat and encirclement as focusing devices. As ours is a country with a weak economy and strong military, we respond to the threat (sometimes it is from Afghans, sometimes from Iran and yes, India – our enemy by default) by opting to either freeze or stretch the threat out. This has been a great strategic folly as such a strategy needs to be built on unnecessary provocations. No wonder then as part of the consequences, such efforts have contributed to strengthen Indo-Iranian-Afghan partnership.
That has to change, not only out of its shortsightedness, but also if Pakistan wants to remain relevant in world affairs. Fears of isolation and enhanced sensitiveness to some remote dangers cannot make the nation unite on the need to put the house in order.
In political, economic or cultural terms, Pakistan is situated in a complex yet dynamic environment: China is too economic; India is too strategic; and there is too much chaos on our western and north-western borders.
In such an environment, in order to chalk out a prudent and proactive roadmap for our foreign and defence policies, Pakistan needs to strengthen its foreign ministry to such an extent that it enjoys formidable power and autonomy. We can act better only when our foreign ministry contains a dense network of talented career diplomats at its disposal.
As the power centres of the world are themselves embroiled in many challenges, they have less pressing wants for taking our position into account; which automatically buys us greater time to take ourselves into account. Currently, Pakistan is enjoying a considerable level of peace. We need to galvanize it. In order to do that, we need to figure out our tremendous geo-economic potential and capitalize on it. Only more economic growth and a wider economic base can give us more leverage to ensure peace and prosperity within and without our borders.
This moment, of all moments, calls us to reorient and revitalize our energies toward increasing our country’s economic vigour, effectiveness and stability of political institutions, capability to innovate, and resilience in the society.