It is “time to extend hand of peace in all directions … we stand firmly committed to the ideals of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence”, said Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief of the Army Staff, while addressing the PAF graduation ceremony last week.
It is an insightful statement in tune with the recent global developments. With the successful launch of anti-Covid vaccines and the election of Joe Biden as president of the United States, optimism is replacing despondency the world over.
Most countries are now looking towards a quick V-shaped recovery and an era of cooperation to meet the global challenges rather than quibbling with each other. Even countries involved in severe conflicts for the last several decades, such as in the Middle East, are now looking towards peace.
In Africa, a new continent-wide free trade agreement became operational on January 1, 2021. It is not only expected to promote trade but also peace in the region.
Due to our involvement in Afghan war from the early 1980s, we have lost thousands of precious lives and seriously damaged our economy.
It was only two decades ago that we had the highest GDP per capita in the region, including India and Bangladesh. Due to wrong geopolitical policies, we are now at the bottom. This gap is further widening.
According to International Monetary Fund (IMF) projections for 2020-21, emerging economies expect to grow at 6.3%, while Pakistan’s economy will grow at a mere 1.5%.
With its population rising rapidly and growth at a standstill, Pakistan needs to change its focus from hostilities to peace. To achieve long-term peace, we need to re-engage with the rest of the world. The best way for this would be through trade, starting with our region.
Over the years, Pakistan’s trade with its neighbours has been sliding. The only exception is trade with China, with which we have always enjoyed peaceful relations.
Pakistan shares a 2,200km-long border with Afghanistan, but bilateral trade has been shrinking due to political issues. The exchange between the two countries was around $3 billion in 2011, but now it has fallen to $1.3 billion.
At the urging of its close friends such as China, Pakistan is making some amends. It has already opened three additional border-crossing points. Both countries are now renegotiating their bilateral transit and trade agreement.
Since Afghanistan is a landlocked country, it is for Pakistan to ease restrictions. Pakistan has continued to block Afghanistan’s imports from India through Wagah, but it does not serve any economic purpose for anyone. Opening this route will be a major signal to show that Pakistan is serious about achieving peace in the region.
Similarly, Pakistan’s trade with Iran, the second-largest economy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, has been falling. Our exports to Iran are just $23 million against Iran’s global imports of $41 billion (2018).
This is even though the two countries share a 960km-long border and have a preferential trade agreement.
The most significant gains can come from normalising trade relations with our eastern neighbour India, with which we share a common border of 3,300 km.
According to the World Bank, the potential of trade between India and Pakistan is $37 billion against actual trade of $2.4 billion (2018), even when business was relatively more open.
Previous to the closure of borders, Pakistan’s imports from India mostly consisted of cheaper raw material for our industry. For example, we imported over one-third of our cotton from India, but now we have to import from far-off countries like the US and Vietnam.
Other industries such as pharmaceuticals are also suffering due to a lack of raw material. Poor date farmers of Sindh, who were so much dependent on exports to India, are now struggling. We can imagine the employment opportunities, industrial growth and poverty reduction that the resumption of trade could bring for our poverty-stricken masses. It will not be easy, but where there is a will, there is a way.
After all, both countries reopened their airspace after keeping it closed for six months. They also have to realise that they are not the only ones with territorial or other disputes. Recently, China and India had major border flare-ups, but that did not impact their flourishing bilateral trade.
There is indeed no better time than this to extend a hand of peace in all directions. It is in our interest.
The writer has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to WTO and as FAO representative to the United Nations at Geneva
Published in The Express Tribune, February 8th, 2021.
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