Pakistan at the crossroads

Published April 18, 2016
The writer is the author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.
The writer is the author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.

Pakistan is at a crossroads. As usual. This is not a surprise, for Pakistan is — always has and always been — at a crossroads; perhaps it always will be.

It seems so obvious that the country is at a point of having to decide its future: what should the response be with regards to religious fundamentalism; how should relations with India be improved (and should they even be improved); what is the right path to take with Iran, with Afghanistan, with the rest of the world; how can parts of the country, that feel like they are slipping into the cracks, be brought back into the fold — should the emphasis be on gentle persuasion and encouragement, or is this a time to take a more robust stand? And what about the Panama Papers — will political leaders never learn from the past?

The good news — and the bad news — is that the questions and the answers are identical. The problem is not that Pakistan is at a crossroads; the problem is that Pakistan is the crossroads.

Examine: Smokers’ Corner: Jurassic Pak

It is the crossroads between East and West, and between North and South. Trade and transportation routes that weave Asia together intersect in Pakistan — which explains why the country has so many rich variations, so many different traditions, and despite the recent suicide bombing in Lahore, a long and proud tradition of tolerance.

The area that comprises modern Pakistan saw some of the greatest cultural and intellectual achievements in world history, from the glory of Mohenjodaro and Harappa millennia ago, to the remarkable flourishing that saw Sindh celebrated as one of the greatest prizes of the Muslim world — when ports like Debul fell to Arab armies at the start of the eighth century. The centrality of the country continued long after that, with thriving centres like Thatta being viewed with wonder by Europeans, who visited in growing numbers in the centuries that followed.

Empires have risen, and fallen, in line with the fortunes of the region that today makes up modern Pakistan.

Nor was it the coast of Pakistan that was bursting with life, energy and culture, for cities like Lahore were celebrated a thousand years ago in ways that are immediately recognisable to visitors of the city today: Lahore, wrote the author of the Hudud al-Alam, was a glorious place, marked by spectacularly beautiful places of worship, well-stocked markets, and carefully laid-out orchards (the anonymous author was less impressed with the city’s inhabitants, who he thought were crude and blessed with poor manners).

It is not surprising therefore that empires have risen, and fallen, in line with the fortunes of the region that today makes up modern Pakistan. This does not only include great leaders like Akbar and Jahangir, who recognised that control of their own empire was best established by controlling Punjab — or Ranjit Singh, who created an extraordinarily successful and diverse state that was a military, political and cultural force to be reckoned with 200 years ago.

In fact, what happened in and around Pakistan shaped events and empires far away. The Persian empire saw perhaps its greatest ever success with the rampaging invasion of Nader Shah which saw Lahore and then Delhi ravaged, and their proudest and richest jewels (like the Peacock Throne and the celebrated Koh-i-Noor diamond) looted to adorn the palaces and crowns of Persian leaders.

And then of course came the time of the British, who arrived first as traders, but soon found themselves intermediaries, and as military muscle who could be persuaded to become involved in domestic affairs by ambitious (or desperate) rulers. This generated trading concessions that eventually allowed British merchants to have the upper hand against those from other countries — but also over domestic traders.

The process of acceleration — from partners to having privileged positions to administrators and rulers — was one echoed in many parts of the world that Europe came into contact with: empire was not part of a European master plan. It just so happened that opportunities kept opening up which were too good to miss out on. In 1757, for example, Robert Clive of the East India Company found himself placed in charge of the entire economy of Bengal. At a stroke, Bengalis lost control of their own fate and, literally, of their own fortunes.

For Pakistan today, therefore, it is time for decision-making again. For all the big questions to face up to in the country’s tangled and complicated domestic and international affairs, the one which will have by far the most significant consequences in the future is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Massive investment from China into much-needed infrastructure, such as roads, a huge deep-water port at Gwadar, and perhaps in due course even a high-speed railway, seems like a gift at a time when there is limited foreign direct investment into the country. Commitments likewise to upgrade the energy grid across Pakistan promise to transform the country by finally providing reliable power sources; the absence of which have prevented industry and business, as well as schools and homes, from being able to truly flourish.

The danger, of course, is that (as happened when the British and Europeans arrived in Asia) outside help is used to solve today’s problems at the cost of storing up new, more complex problems for tomorrow. The dangers and risks are particularly acute, moreover, in democratic states, where long-term planning is particularly difficult; politicians are strongly incentivised to think about upcoming elections, rather than what might (or might not) happen in a generation’s time.

Massive Chinese investment can — and will — help transform Pakistan if it is handled correctly, and if fair and equitable terms are agreed upon. It also matters to revisit these terms, as the world keeps changing, not least in the case of China. When President Xi Jinping announced the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative in 2013, things looked rather differently compared to 2015, as China’s slowdown and ‘new normal’ mean that decisions and plans are being adjusted in Beijing.

It should be comforting to know that China, like Pakistan, is at a crossroads too. Working together, with mutual interests being promoted and protected, is not only nothing to be afraid of, it is entirely sensible and logical. It all depends on getting the details right — and on learning the lessons of history.

The writer is the author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2016



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