On June 16, 2022, the Pakistani Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, made an emphatic case for greater engagement with those members of the international community that have strained relations with Pakistan. Speaking at the Institute of Strategic Studies (ISS), he argued that Islamabad cannot influence Indian policy if there is a lack of engagement and diplomacy with New Delhi.
Responding to public backlash against this shift in perspective, the Foreign Office clarified that there would be “no change in policy” with regards to India.
This compels one to wonder what is the exact nature of our current policy regarding South Asia? Is it effective in serving Pakistan’s national interest? While certain steps taken by the Indian government, such as the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status and the victimisation of India’s Muslims, are indeed deplorable, is our disengagement with India addressing these problems or proving to be counterproductive?
As a response to the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir, Pakistan suspended its trade ties with India. However, that step has done little to dissuade India from adopting a dangerous course. Since then, India has continued to commit itself to a programme of demographic changes and authoritarianism in Kashmir and beyond. Similarly, India refuses to engage with Pakistan until its concerns regarding terrorism are addressed.
Given these impediments, any moves made towards normalisation have been extremely precarious. At the same time, we have forsaken the opportunity of benefiting from trade with our eastern neighbour.
By relying on a discourse that depicts each side as the great “other”, both states have allowed the poison of extremism and muscular nationalism to proliferate public consciousness.
The Indo-Pak trade volume before the suspension of ties was less than $3 billion. However, most projections show that if both states fully normalise their mutual trade ties, then this figure can balloon to northwards of $40 billion. Regardless of the exact financial windfall both sides may benefit from, there is a case for reestablishing trade ties that goes beyond the obvious economic advantages.
Critics of an enhanced economic relationship with India argue that it would be impossible to trade with our eastern neighbour due to the pitiful status of our current relationship with them. It is assumed that India can rely on numerous other trade partners and does not necessarily need trade ties with Pakistan.
As far as the first argument is concerned, there is little correlation between the political status of a bilateral relationship and trade relations. It is apparent that the most pressing geopolitical challenge that India faces is China seeking to expand its influence in the region. However, China remains one of India’s largest trading partners, with their bilateral trade being valued at a whopping $115.41 billion during the last fiscal year. Similarly, while the United States may be competing with China for influence around the globe, Beijing is Washington’s largest trading partner.
As far as the idea of Pakistan having little to offer to India is concerned, these arguments are rather presumptive. At the very least, Pakistan can act as a transit hub that links India with Afghanistan and Central Asia. In such a scenario, Pakistan can make these states pay for the privilege of merely utilising its already existing infrastructure. There are also certain goods, such as cement and textiles, that can be exported to India.
A normalised trade regime with India offers Pakistan the opportunity to engage with the rest of the South Asian region. In a global economy that is reeling from supply chain disruptions and skyrocketing prices, it is much more prudent to expand trade ties regionally, rather than depending on unreliable and increasingly costly shipping networks.
There are also certain benefits of enhancing our economic engagement with the region that are unquantifiable. Regardless of what the exact volume of our potential trade relationship will be, the resumption of formal economic ties can act as a confidence-building measure that will aid us in addressing the numerous issues that plague our relationship. How can India and Pakistan have a constructive dialogue on issues such as Kashmir and terrorism, if there is a huge trust deficit hindering the prospect of progress? This air of mistrust cannot dissipate until there is meaningful economic engagement and cultural exchange between the two regions.
There is little correlation between the political status of a bilateral relationship and trade relations. It is apparent that the most pressing geopolitical challenge that India faces is China seeking to expand its influence in the region. However, China remains one of India’s largest trading partners, with their bilateral trade being valued at a whopping $115.41 billion during the last fiscal year.
Perhaps the most persuasive argument for enhancing economic ties with India has more to do with the costs that both sides have borne, and will continue to bear if we maintain the status quo. Aside from the obvious aspect of both sides spending extravagant amounts of capital on their defense capabilities, we also need to consider the impact that the current level of polarisation has on our respective societies. By relying on a discourse that depicts each side as the great “other”, both states have allowed the poison of extremism and muscular nationalism to proliferate public consciousness.
This has a direct impact on our domestic politics and leads to intolerance not only for the “other”, but for those holding opposing viewpoints within as well. People-to-people contact will allow us to humanise each other and reduce extremist views within our societies. It is apparent that there can be no substantial action on issues such as climate change, water management and sustainable development without a cohesive regional approach, as these issues transcend national boundaries.
Perhaps the most unquantifiable cost is the price we pay by choosing to bear the burden of history. If we, as responsible members of the global community, choose to reconcile with our shared trauma that has plagued us for multiple generations, then perhaps we can move towards reaping the benefits of an integrated South Asian region.
By harnessing our demographics, resources and skills, we can collectively move towards building a brighter and more peaceful future, and the advantage of doing so goes beyond any monetary benefit.