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Changing vision?

Updated March 13, 2018


I RECENTLY spent time in Pakistan talking to officials and opinion makers about the emerging geopolitical scenario in South Asia. I heard three types of views.

The most sceptical voices, mostly security establishment members and conservative strategic analysts, see the US-India partnership as an existential threat for Pakistan. The argument is that Cold War-type alliance structures are forming in and around South Asia whereby the US-India combine is manoeuvring to challenge the China-Pakistan alliance.

In this framing, the US has looked the other way as India has expanded its influence in Afghanistan — read, created a two-front situation. The goal is to undermine CPEC. The most extreme version was explained via maps as one where external powers were engineering a breakup of Pakistan.

The second grouping, also representative of parts of the security establishment and independent strategic thinkers, share the view that India is trying to keep Pakistan unhinged and that the world is unfairly blaming Pakistan for Afghanistan’s woes but they are willing to be far more self-critical. They do not see any grand design to cut Pakistan to size.

Rather, they feel that alliance structures in and around the region are in flux and Pakistan can benefit from its critical location. To avail this though, they argue that Pakistan must not act as a pawn in great power competition, and should focus on creating incentives for all-emerging great power camps to work with it positively.

The third camp, mostly from the development and civil society space, blames Pakistani policies, not the world, for the country’s woes. The central issue for this group is the security-centric approach to foreign policy that has ignored pressing development and social welfare concerns. Some single out what they characterise as the army’s India obsession and the alleged resultant use of proxy militants.

Connectivity needs to drop the ‘look west’ approach.

The conversation across the three cohorts converges on two points. One, that more of the same is no longer a tenable option. Without serious efforts to change things, Pakistan will grow increasingly weak and isolated.

Two, there was a remarkable consensus on what to do. In unisons, the answer was utilising the economic potential of the country’s location by acting as a connectivity hub. Everyone seems to agree that only this can make Pakistan’s neighbours genuinely dependent on Pakistan’s stability.

To be sure, the three camps have different visions of what this ought to look like. The first wants to create connectivity sans India; the second also feels that this is most likely in phase I given India’s presumed reluctance to allow Pakistan additional leverage through connectivity; the third argues that the effort must include all neighbours for efforts to bypass India (and India’s to bypass Pakistan) will imply that both rivals would continue to see the other’s connectivity efforts as a threat.

Regardless, this debate is encouraging. It represents a massive change in the direction of overall thinking, especially among the strategic enclave which has long seen regional integration as a euphemism for handing India a decisive advantage.

Still, the question on how to harness this sentiment and translate it into policy needs more work. A genuine move towards cementing Pakistan’s position as a connectivity hub would require major internal changes.

First, the ‘look west’ approach to keep out of India’s orbit of influence has been the ethos of Pakistan’s foreign policy for decades. Con­nectivity requires a move away from this, and so an alternative national narrative about the importance of positive neighbourhood ties. It also means that the talking point about CPEC being a substitute for broader global relations must be dropped. At least the longer-term vision must imagine a wholly integrated region.

Second, current bureaucratic structures are not equipped to backstop this vision. The Foreign Office would need to be rewired to become a hub of geo-economic (rather than geostrategic) diplomacy. New linkages will also be needed among ministries: for regional connectivity, commerce (trade and transit), planning (CPEC and new development around connectivity), interior (visas), and relevant provincial departments would become central. There is even a case for a body directly under the prime minister to coordinate regional connectivity functions across the civilian and military spheres.

Third, the larger policy community, specifically think tanks and strategic analysts and journalists, should be incentivised to study various connectivity scenarios. State-linked think tanks and the National Defence University (military’s equivalent) could be tasked to take the lead in preparing a cogent vision for a regionally connected Pakistan.

Finally, and most importantly, the needle must move on actual policies that continue to worry the world about Pakistan. Yes, the world would surely have to play its part in easing the pressure. But this requires a clean break from securitised approaches to protecting regional interests. Otherwise, Pakistan will remain stuck in the rut.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, D.C.

Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2018