President Obama’s India visit underlines two facts of life that need to be faced: First, there has been a seismic shift in the centre of gravity of the global economy for the first time in three centuries from the West to what is today Pakistan’s neighbourhood. If the GDP growth trends in India continue, then over the next 15 years, India could emerge as the third largest economy in the world after China and the U.S. respectively. Already India’s industry, services and knowledge base have a global outreach and its economy is a powerhouse that together with China is driving the world economy.
President Obama has simply recognized this fact, and with the USD 10 billion export deal, has achieved economic gains for the U.S. and political gains for himself by generating the associated 50,000 jobs back home.
The second harsh fact that Pakistan’s government may wish to take account of, is that countries base their foreign policy on their economic and security interests, rather than ideology. So the rather plaintive cry of our foreign office that the U.S. ought to base its foreign policy on morality rather than expediency is likely to fall on deaf ears. It is instructive to note in this context that President Obama while raising the issue of human rights violations by the Myanmar government during his speech to the Indian Parliament kept quiet about the gross human rights violations by India in Kashmir.
Given India’s emergence as a global economic power, and the West’s rational response of pursuing their economic interests through partnership with India, can Pakistan afford to confront this rationality with irrationality?
The options for Pakistan are as clear as the facts of the case. We can either isolate ourselves in the region and remain a basket case dependent on handouts from the West or integrate economically with South Asia, Central Asia, and West Asia to build a strong and prosperous Pakistan.
We can choose to remain locked into a demonstrably outdated and counter productive national security paradigm which sees India as a permanent enemy. Hence the need to tolerate or even nurture indirectly the militant extremist groups which presumably would become strategic assets in an asymmetric war with India, and help in installing a pro Pakistan government in Afghanistan after the exit of the US and ISAF in a few years. Of course in this perspective, trade with India would be anathema.
This policy paradigm ignores two important aspects of Pakistan’s welfare. First, the very extremist groups which are supposed to be “force multipliers” in a future India-Pakistan war, constitute a clear and present danger to Pakistan, as they pursue their own political agenda within Pakistan by means of terror. Second, the critical threat to democracy and indeed the state is the persistence of mass poverty and unemployment. This is being worsened by the stagflation that grips Pakistan’s economy and creates a fiscal paralysis that reinforces the state’s failure to provide even the minimum conditions of civilized life to the majority of the people. It is a failure that erodes the legitimacy of the democratic structure, as much as it undermines the state. Consider an alternative approach. An important initiative that could pull Pakistan’s economy out of its deep recession and at the same time stabilize food prices is to have free trade with India and the rest of South Asia as envisaged in the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA). In time, foreign investment from India into Pakistan could be allowed for further trade creation. The gains from free trade and investment are immense. They would accelerate growth, reduce poverty and provide much needed fiscal space to the democratic government. This would provide human security, which is essential to national security.
At the same time the social and cultural interaction with the “other” across the border would help nurture a pluralistic society which is the foundation of democracy.
Thus, the path of economic cooperation with India and South Asia, will do far more for Pakistan’s economic well-being and hence national security than confrontation. This however requires that like President Obama, Pakistan’s government make economic interests rather than ideology, the basis of foreign policy.