THE appointment of a trade officer in Pakistan’s high commission in New Delhi has sparked discussions about a possible resumption of trade across the Wagah border. Trade ties between Pakistan and India have largely been frozen since the latter revoked held Kashmir’s special constitutional status in August 2019. However, the Ministry of Commerce says there is “no change in Pakistan’s policy on trade with India” — meaning that commercial links will continue to remain frozen — while adding that the posting is a routine affair and not a prelude to normalisation of trade ties. As has been well-documented, South Asia remains one of the world’s least economically integrated regions, with the fraught Pakistan-India relationship limiting commercial activities. Perhaps the new government is testing the waters by appointing a trade officer to gauge domestic response. Yet, many in government as well as the private sector have pointed out, the resumption of trade can be a possible pathway to better bilateral relations, and if done right, can contribute to mutual economic progress. In fact, the former PTI-led government had toyed with the idea of allowing limited imports from India last year (before rowing back) though former prime minister Imran Khan had also engaged in mixed messaging by saying that there would be no trade until the changes to India-held Kashmir’s autonomous status were reversed. Many of the previous administration’s senior officials had also discussed the benefits of bilateral trade. Moreover, the army chief has also spoken positively about the need for trade with India, as have some of the country’s top business persons.
Of course, some elements in the country will decry the idea of maintaining commercial ties with India and accuse the government of ‘selling out’ the Kashmir cause; in fact, it should be mentioned that the parties currently in power themselves opposed trade with India when in opposition. Support for Kashmir is based on principles and should continue. If ties improve with India through trade, it may create more conducive conditions to resume bilateral dialogue, as well as negotiations, to peacefully and judiciously resolve the decades-old Kashmir dispute. Therefore, bold and innovative thinking is required of the government. Let it explore the prospects of resuming trade, especially if it works in favour of reviving the local economy. This can create the dual benefits of economic revitalisation and normalisation of ties with India — surely a better option than the distrust that dominates South Asia today.
Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2022