Geoeconomic pivot

Published November 26, 2023
The writer is a former foreign secretary and chairman of Sanober Institute Islamabad.
The writer is a former foreign secretary and chairman of Sanober Institute Islamabad.

FOR nearly two years, the subject of geoeconomics has been discussed in Pakistan’s academic and official echelons. In an article published in this paper in December 2021, this writer had discussed the prospects of geoeconomics benefiting Pakistan by leveraging our economic geography to address geostrategic challenges — it being understood that geoeconomics is not a replacement for geopolitics and that both must work in tandem.

However, it is important to recognise that Pakistan’s pivot to geoeconomics is different from the way the term evolved in the Cold War context. US strategists proposed to use geoeconomics to gain geopolitical advantage against adversaries. An elaborate menu of economic instruments was developed: promoting or blocking investments, market access, or infrastructure projects and imposing economic sanctions, tariff wars, and technology wars. This represented a skewed dimension of geoeconomics suiting only stronger economies, while working against vulnerable ones. This is not the geoeconomic pivot to which Pakistan aspires. For Pakistan, the pivot to geoeconomics would mean benefiting from our unique economic geography.

Pakistan is at the confluence of three major theatres of global contestation. First is the Indo-Pacific region, which extends from Japan through the Pacific and Indian Oceans and ends up in India to our east. The region is at the heart of the ongoing US-China competition. Pakistan, as a neighbour of both India and China, cannot shy away from the challenges emanating from this region.

Second is the Middle East, which extends from North Africa across the Arab heartland and ends in Iran to our southwest. Momentous winds of change are sweeping across this vast region. We can witness these in the Iran-Saudi rapprochement brokered by China, waning US influence in the region, and the Israel-Hamas conflict, which has disrupted the Arab-Israel normalisation process. As a neighbour of Iran, and located in the vicinity of the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, which itself is undergoing a socioeconomic transformation of historic proportions, Pakistan cannot stay aloof from these developments.

A fresh approach to connectivity can open up a new world.

Third is the Central Asian region, which is connected to both Russia and China, and straddles the energy and mineral-rich lands down to Afghanistan, Pakistan’s northwestern neighbour. Russia sees this region as its backyard, while China and Turkey are both seeking to extend their influence. Here, too, the US seems to be losing ground. Any changes across Central Asia, particularly in Afghanistan, are bound to be of direct concern to Pakistan.

While this economic geography is throwing up geostrategic challenges as major power competition intensifies in all the three regions, there will also be opportunities which Pakistan can avail only if it plays its geoeconomic hand in tandem with pursuing its geopolitical goals, while understanding its limitations. These challenges and opportunities have been discussed at length in a recent booklet, Pakistan’s Geoeconomic Pivot, authored by Moeed Yusuf and Rabia Akhtar, which was discussed at a recent conference in Islamabad.

When the concept of geoeconomics was introduced in the National Security Policy 2022, sceptics felt that geoeconomics cannot work without first addressing Pakistan’s geopolitical realities, internally and externally; ie, the so-called hard security issues. This is a valid observation. However, to keep potential geoeconomic gains unharvested until we make progress on the geopolitical and security agenda may not deliver the hard security Pakistan is looking for.

In fact, a geoeconomic approach can help Pakistan extricate itself from the security-centric agenda that it has vis-à-vis three of its four neighbours. Fresh thinking is needed regarding how the changes happening in these three regions can be transformed into economic opportunities that would benefit us economically as well as build international stakes in Pakistan’s stability. A fresh approach to connectivity, development partnerships, and regional trade can open up a whole new world for us.

This may not be easy. A change of mindset is always challenging. Allama Iqbal rightly indicated in his poetry that being afraid of new ways and insisting on old ones is the only difficult stage in the life of nations.

The National Security Policy 2022 provides a good beginning by introducing a comprehensive concept of national security — traditional defence, economic security and human security — with primacy given to economic security, and within that realm to geoeconomics. The logic is not difficult to comprehend. A stronger economy brings prosperity, renders the country relevant in a global context, and makes ample resources available to defend against any aggression from outside.

The writer is a former foreign secretary and chairman of Sanober Institute Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2023

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