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A Doomed Region

by Khaled Ahmed

So long as South Asia remains hostage to the whims of Pakistan and India, there is little hope of achieving free trade and movement across borders

Pakistan is supposed to host the 20th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) this year but we know it is a nonstarter because of what is going on in the region. The last time the summit fell to Pakistan was in 2016 but it failed to materialize, as Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi put it, “due to some reasons.” The forum to resolve all regional disputes fell victim to a growing ledger of disputes among its members, especially between Pakistan and India. Who sabotaged the 2016 summit? Back then it was India. But last year Qureshi said, “No member countries have objected.” Does this mean that because India had stopped objecting to “Pakistan’s terrorism” in 2019, the Islamabad summit will be held this year?

Pakistan remains willing, despite actions taken by the Narendra Modi government in India to annex Kashmir through the abrogation of Article 370 of its constitution. But will Prime Minister Modi’s “reelected” government let the 20th SAARC summit happen? The strategic map of South Asia, as dominated by nuclear powers India and Pakistan, has changed: if Delhi once complained of “infiltrations” from Pakistan, Islamabad now complains of proxy terrorism from across the Durand Line. Diplomacy has yielded to verbal belligerence after Pakistan downgraded its embassy following the abrogation of Article 370. What use is a summit when the “big two” are not ready for it?

Last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan proposed “free trade” with India as he inaugurated the Kartarpur Corridor as a gesture of appeasement, but Delhi was not interested for reasons that became apparent only after Modi revoked Article 370. Somewhat under pressure from disturbances in India following the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), Modi could now be expected to relent but most commentators expect India’s hawkishness to continue. SAARC, fading over the years because of India and Pakistan, may thus have receded forever from the region.

The real dream was free trade and free movement of people in South Asia. In 1995, the 16th Council of Ministers had agreed “to strive for the realization of South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA)” and Pakistan abandoned its “Kashmir condition” of the past to work toward it. Things looked serious, as in 1998 a Committee of Experts was set up to draft a treaty framework for creating a free trade area “taking into consideration the asymmetries in development within the region and bearing in mind the need to fix realistic and achievable targets.”

There were romantic plans about agreeing to India’s demand for a trade route to Afghanistan through Pakistan; but in Islamabad-Rawalpindi the wrong “intellectual” connections were made about it and an opportunity was lost. Later when China proposed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) this connection was easily made, although Beijing’s suggestion to “include” India in it was opposed for the same lack of intellectual readiness. This reminded one of what happened to an Iranian gas pipeline

In 2002, the news for a time was that Russian firm Gazprom would take a pipeline carrying Iranian gas to India passing through the territorial waters of Pakistan for a fee. India and Iran had already endorsed the project. The gas was to be extracted from an Iranian offshore source and would meet the growing energy needs of India in the coming decades and yield Iran $45 billion annually. It was to be a project of long gestation costing $3.2 billion and its first leg from the Iranian gas-fields to Karachi’s port was to span 1,500km. Pakistan had intellectual and “spiritual reservations”; and India simply didn’t believe it. Iran was on its own “spiritual” journey that was to attract American sanctions landing it in much bigger trouble on its western border.

If regional “connectivities” were unacceptable to Pakistan—likely because of its ideological “purity”—the other project joining Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) also came to grief because of what was happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas through loss of internal sovereignty. The TAPI pipeline was to stretch 1,118 miles transporting 33bcm of gas per year at an estimated cost of $10 billion. But its prospective financiers could not stomach professional assessments of what the “concerned nations” would do to its infrastructure. The estimate was made in 2002 by the Asian Development Bank; today it is valued at four times that, which means: “forget it.”

Pakistan has no clear idea of what will happen to it as it loses its “warrior” ideology while acting as a trading corridor after making peace based on trade and not on “liberation” of Kashmir. The problem is further compounded by India’s process of becoming “like the enemy”: rise of Hindutva, which puts pressure on the non-Hindu communities and those “unregistered” persons Delhi thinks have entered it from neighbors and SAARC members Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. While Pakistan expresses its disgust at what the Hindutva brigades in India are doing to communities rejecting CAA it is hardly aware of “India becoming like Pakistan” and therefore unwilling to effect its own Pakistani self-correction.

“Misguided” former foreign secretary of Pakistan Riaz Muhammad Khan, in his book Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism and Resistance to Modernity (OUP 2011), writes the following note on how Pakistan should proceed if it wants to survive:

“Pakistan’s ambition to become a hub of economic activity would be difficult to materialize without the opening of transit routes to India. When the idea of activating the KKH [Karakoram Highway] for commerce with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan was initiated by Pakistan in early 1993, the two countries were enthusiastic. The Kazakh minister for transportation convened a meeting and invited ambassadors from both Pakistan and India based in Alma Ata. He was disappointed to learn that India could not be included at that time, in view of tensions in relations between the two South Asian neighbors. The size of India’s market creates the potential and generates interest to liven up prospects of overland transit.”

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