THE year 2021 will be remembered in Pakistan for the fight against Covid, the return of a Taliban government in Afghanistan, continuing tensions with India, and the intensifying US-China competition. But the year would also be remembered for a deliberate effort towards a more comprehensive paradigm of national security — military, economic and human securities. And within this broader context, which was introduced during the Islamabad Security Dialogue last March, much of the discussion has remained focused on the term ‘geoeconomics’. What do we actually mean by geoeconomics and can it deliver the expected economic dividends while also addressing the geopolitics of our region?
Simply put, geoeconomics is about viewing resources of countries in political and spatial dimensions. The term is not new; it was used in the early 1990s to assert that in the post-Cold War period, competition between states would be in the economic, rather than the military, domain. This expectation remained unmet. There has been a feverish militarisation of states, and resort to hybrid warfare, of which economic coercion is an oft-used tool. Notwithstanding this alarming trend, there are examples of how some countries have used geoeconomics to elevate their political stature and clout. China is a good example of that, and amongst smaller states, Singapore and the UAE.
In Pakistan’s context, geoeconomics would mean leveraging our geography to maximise our economic well-being. That’s quite fine. However, when some of us talk of a policy ‘shift’ towards geoeconomics, we must not forget that in our case, geostrategy would never be irrelevant. A move towards geoeconomics should, therefore, not be a shift, but a change of emphasis, within the overall construct of comprehensive national security.
Let us be clear. Geoeconomics will serve us well only if we are able to play the geostrategy right. Doable, but not easy. The US-China competition is intensifying, placing Pakistan in an awkward position. The US-India partnership seems to be emboldening India’s hegemonic tendencies and its relentless pursuit to create a Hindu rashtra, generating fear and discontent amongst its non-Hindu minorities. The Taliban have returned to power in Afghanistan after the US pulled its troops out, but the country is on the brink of yet another round of instability, even civil war. The Kashmir dispute continues to fester, with India now embarked upon changing its demography. Iran remains hamstrung under US sanctions. These are huge geostrategic challenges. The question is how do we turn this profoundly challenging geopolitics to mutually beneficial geoeconomics?
Geoeconomics is not a low-hanging fruit. We would need to work hard to fully benefit from our economic geography.
Admittedly, geoeconomics is important for Pakistan. For too long, Pakistan has been viewed internationally as a country beset with a weak economy, divisive politics, and societal disorders, especially violent religious extremism. If we truly want the world to view us differently, not through these vulnerabilities, but through our strengths — the connectivity hub, large consumer market, expanding middle class, youth bulge — then a greater emphasis on geoeconomics is certainly the answer.
For enhanced focus on geoeconomics, the first obvious point of reference is viewing our geographical location differently. Not as a ‘tough neighbourhood’ as some in Pakistan like to call it, but as a ‘confluence’ of South, Central and West Asia, where billions of people are generating GDP worth trillions of dollars. The region is rich in energy and young human resource, and is reasonably industrialised. Can Pakistan benefit from this economic geography? Can we serve as a true hub connecting these three sub-regions? The answer is yes, we can, but for that, we need to make some major adjustments in how we view the world around us and how we do business with our region.
Peaceful coexistence with our neighbours, tranquillity on our borders, eschewing hostile rhetoric, making our trade and investment regime more attractive and human resource more skillful, and focusing intensely on meaningfully addressing the existential threats of climate change and water, food and energy security are some of the most important prerequisites for geoeconomics to work for us.
Make no mistake. Geoeconomics is not a low-hanging fruit. We would need to work hard to fully benefit from our economic geography. Make our industry more competitive and link up to global supply chains. Straighten out bureaucratic rigmaroles, and make ease of doing business a top national priority. A whole-of-the-government approach would be required, with all stakeholders contributing to this national cause. Industrialisation should be wholeheartedly supported as industry creates jobs, and either earns us or saves us hard foreign exchange. The think tanks should be encouraged to study how the two success stories of our time — the European Union and Asean — not only found the right balance in their geopolitics and geoeconomics but also used the latter to resolve the challenges of the former.
An equally important step for benefiting from greater emphasis on geoeconomics is to change the narratives on geopolitics of our region. This would require parallel work on several tracks. Generate a narrative of peace. Stir up debate around economic opportunities. Use the theme of connectivity to send out positive messaging. Focus on internal stability and rein in all militant and non-state actors who resort to extremism and terrorism and thus scare away investors. Work on changing Pakistan’s international perception from extremism and terrorism to tourism, using our points of strength — a bastion of major religions, a rich archaeological heritage, and the mighty mountains.
Finally, make domestic media a partner to build a brand of Pakistan that is associated with economic security and regional peace. Step up the efforts we are already making for peace in the region and signal our readiness to engage with all our neighbours and beyond, on the basis of mutual respect and shared benefits, which is at the heart of geoeconomics.
The writer is the former foreign secretary of Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, December 31st, 2021