Noted author and journalist Ahmed Rashid advocated in February 2011 ‘exactly a year before’ that Pakistan was facing some real geo-strategic problems as it had become isolated and been left with no friends in the region.
We don’t have regional allies. Arabs have had enough with Taliban and Afghanistan. China is close to us, but it’s aware of the religious extremist tendencies here which pose a serious threat to China due to its rebellious Muslim population. India can’t be a friend as tells the history. We’ve created an enormous sense of distrust among the Central Asian countries, thanks to our military policies, he had observed during a candid talk on ‘Regional Situation’ Opportunities for Pakistan’ organised by Pakistan Institute of Maritime Affairs at the Defence Central Library, Karachi, on 19th February 2011. Ahmad Rashid and many others shared the perception that Pakistan must introduce a paradigm shift in its policy towards its neighbours. And finally, the democratic government has realized significance of such pursuits because there is a resonance of a foreign policy initiative called ‘Neighbours-First’. Month of February witnessed implementation of such a policy in real terms as Pakistan practically engaged itself with its neighbour’ immediate or distant one.
Reaching out to neighbours also addressed the question of regional connectivity as many projects of connectivity were also taken up. Almost with all these engagements, promotion of peace and security and enhancing trade relations remained the central aspects.
The persistent storm in the cup internal political mess emerging out of memogate scam, contempt of court proceedings against the Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, and many other similar issues, Pakistan embarked upon reaching out to the neighbours from the very first day of February. Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, had a day-long sojourn to Kabul to ease relations which got tense between the countries after unfortunate assassination of former President and Chairman of High Peace Council, late Professor Burhanuddin Rabanni. Then onwards, Pakistan interacted with Russia, a distant neighbour, Qatar’ another distant neighbour, Sri Lanka, India, Iran and Afghanistan at third trilateral summit held in Afghanistan and with all eight countries of the SAARC at Commerce Ministers’ level. Pakistan talked with one neighbour on security and peace issues; it talked with the other on trade liberalization; and yet with other neighbours. Pakistan pursued its policy of attaining autarky in energy for meeting out its growing domestic and commercial consumption. Reaching out to neighbours also addressed the question of regional connectivity as many projects of connectivity were also taken up. Almost with all these engagements, promotion of peace and security and enhancing trade relations remained the central aspects. The Pakistani authorities were seeking more trade and less aid as per their pronouncements.
Foreign Minister’s visit to Kabul
The foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar’s, visit was an attempt to rejoin the thread from where it broke with assassination of Late Professor Rabbanni on 20th September 2011. The two countries discussed issues confronting them peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan and decided to move ahead. While the trade and economic cooperation scenario looks positive between the two countries, there seem visible divergences on reconciliation inside Afghanistan. The two sides expressed satisfaction that due to increasing economic and commercial interaction between the two countries, documented annual bilateral trade has reached the level of $2.5 billion. They agreed that facilitative steps should be taken to further enhance bilateral trade and achieve the target set by the leadership of $ 5 billon annual trade by 2015. If the said target is achieved, Pakistan will gain advantage because Pak-Afghan trade has always been in favour of Pakistan.In terms of the regional connectivity, the foreign minister’s visit to Kabul took up opening of new means of transportation for humans and goods. The two sides agreed to explore donor funding for building Peshawar-Jalalabad and Quetta-Kandahar railways to facilitate the movement of goods and peoples between the two countries. It was also announced during her visit to Kabul that President Hamid Karzai would undertake a visit to Pakistan to hold bilateral meetings and participate in the trilateral summit between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.
They agreed that facilitative steps should be taken to further enhance bilateral trade and achieve the target set by the leadership of $ 5 billon annual trade by 2015. If the said target is achieved, Pakistan will gain advantage because Pak-Afghan trade has always been in favour of Pakistan.
Foreign Minister’s visit to Russia
Both Pakistan and Russia have been desirous of a good friendly relation under the dictates of their respective national interests. Both of them, somehow, share regional contexts in many ways: counter-terrorism and settlement in Afghanistan could be on the top of their shared interests. With the defeat of the then Soviet Union in 1980s, in Afghanistan and consequent emergence of Russian Federation, Russia wants to stage a comeback in Afghanistan. They are naturally looking towards Pakistan. Similarly, Pakistan wants friendly Russia both for regional stability and its industrial growth, energy needs and better trade potential. Pakistani products, comparatively cheaper than the European products, can have an access to around 80 percent of the Russian middle class population. There is a great scope of bilateral trade between the two countries. And the reality was reflected in the joint statement issued after the talks that ‘the two sides noted that the bilateral trade is far below the potential and underscored the importance of exploring ways and means to enhance it further. Pakistan’s energy requirements and the Russian cooperation were also discussed. The two sides discussed several concrete proposals including oil exploration, hydropower production and its distribution and coal-based power generation projects. Pakistan welcomed Russia’s willingness to participate in trans-regional energy projects namely, TAPI and CASA-1000. Pakistan also welcomed Russian interest in the Thar coal exploration.Prime Minister’s visit to Qatar:
Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, paid an official visit to Qatar on 6-7th of February. The outcome of the visit proved highly successful in terms of meeting Pakistan’s energy requirements. The two countries signed an agreement for import of sizeable LNG for Pakistan. Otherwise, the visit was dominated in media reports on another issue, the Qatar being a venue for contacts between Taliban and the United States.
Sri Lankan President’s visit to Pakistan
President of Sri Lanka, His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa, paid a state visit to Pakistan from 10 to 12 February 2012. It was again in terms of trade and regional connectivity that the two countries worked on. The two sides expressed satisfaction on the work of their Joint Economic Commission in taking all requisite steps to enhance two-way trade. It was agreed to make special efforts to increase the bilateral trade to over $ 2 billion by 2015. For trade relations, banking and financial sector cooperation is mandatory. Therefore, it was agreed that the Governors of their Central Banks will take all requisite steps to promoting such cooperation, including the opening of bank branches and trading in local currencies. They also agreed to explore air and sea connectivity between the two sides.
Pakistan had been reluctant in opening up full trade relations with India because of disputes pending for solution. However, the policy of Neighbours-First has created opening between the two countries.
Indian Commerce Minister’s visit to Pakistan
Mr. Anand Sharma, Indian Minister for Commerce, Industry and Textiles, along with a high-powered business delegation, visited Pakistan from 13th to 16th February, 2012. This was the first ever visit by the Commerce Minister of India for substantive bilateral meetings. Accompanied by more than hundred business delegates, this visit marked a historic moment for both the countries, when political leadership and the business communities have extended unequivocal support for full normalization and preferential trading arrangements between the two countries. Pakistan had been reluctant in opening up full trade relations with India because of disputes pending for solution. However, the policy of Neighbours-First has created opening between the two countries. During the 6th Round of Commerce Secretary-Level Talks held on 14-16 November, 2011 at New Delhi, both sides agreed to develop mechanisms to address issues of Non-Tariff Barriers. Substantial progress was made during Anand Sharma’s visit to Pakistan. The two countries initialled three agreements i.e., Customs Cooperation Agreement, Mutual Recognition Agreement and Redressal of Trade Grievances Agreement to build confidence of the business community on both sides. It is hoped that through implementation of these Agreements, the two countries will systematically address the issues related to Non-Tariff Barriers. The two countries also discussed opening of new trade routes. It was agreed that as desired by Indian side, opening of Munabao/ Khokharapar route for trade will be explored in consultation with the stakeholders. A Joint Working Group will be constituted which will report to the respective Governments before the next Round of talks between the Commerce Secretaries. Pakistan also assured the Indian side that it would abide by its commitment made negative list of tradable list with India.
The summit in fact provided an opportunity for bilateral meetings between Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as between Pakistan and Iran.
Trilateral summit between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan:
Third trilateral summit between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan was held in Islamabad on 17th of February. The summit, in fact, provided an opportunity for bilateral meetings between Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as between Pakistan and Iran. The joint communique, issued at the end of the trilateral summit, clearly mentioned the determination of the three countries to strengthen mutual cooperation in countering terrorism and developing their economic and commercial ties. What was particularly heartening, in the context of the US and Israeli threats against Iran, was the trilateral agreement ‘not to allow any threat emanating from their respective territories against each other and commence trilateral consultations on an agreement in this regard. The said pronouncement, indeed, reflected Pakistan’s desire that it values its neighbour more than the distant partners.
On the question of Pak-Afghan concerns about each other on the question of reconciliation inside Afghanistan, the initiatives in the month of February did not yield the cherished results. Afghanistan remains desirous of `do more’ from Pakistan whereas Pakistan also remains suspicious of `use’ of Afghan soil against its interests. However, the resumption of top-level Pakistan-Afghan contacts after a span of six month was welcomed very warmly.Pakistan’s engagements with its neighbours during the month of February are not an end but reflect a good beginning towards a difficult, controversial(in case of India) and time consuming task. Pakistan has to restore trust from within itself before it takes its neighbours into confidence on respecting mutual coexistence. Noted author Ahmad Rashid had also noted in the same talk that ‘Pakistan still had a geo-political advantage in the Gulf, Central Asia and South Asia’ only if exploited wisely by the security establishment.