Commonwealth, OIC, SCO, ECO, and SAARC. The list of alphabet soup of intergovernmental organizations that Pakistan is an active member of is endless. Yet, fears of isolation on global stage persist nevertheless. Why does the state constantly struggle with existential insecurities in foreign relations, even when its performance should at least receive a passing grade for ‘trying’?
A less charitable explanation offered for state’s perennial crisis is that Pakistan’s foreign policy is no better than of headless chicken, aimlessly running in all directions. In seventy years since its creation, the country has failed to materially pivot itself in any one direction for long enough to reap the dividends from its foreign relations. And for that failure, no one government may be fully faulted.
Consider Pakistan’s progress on regional cooperation. In the last five years alone, policymakers have celebrated both – country’s permanent relocation out of the American and into the Chinese camp, and then just this year – dislocation out of it, with one publication recently declaring the ‘death of CPEC’.
Of course, an alternate approach to international relations is that followed by the belligerent neighbour – of never centering itself in anyone camp, but to instead rely on the prowess of its human resource and economy to exercise political influence.
Effectiveness of this approach hit home recently when the Prime Minister himself lamented how ‘brotherly nations’ – hostage to economic interests – had jettisoned the bond of faith by maintaining conspicuous silence on Kashmir.
But the state cannot wait for its economic potential to fully blossom before making hay of its regional cooperation. The question then becomes of the quality of regional cooperation; and with whom?
This lack of clarity was at full display at a two-day moot of CAREC countries held In Islamabad last week. CAREC – short for Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Program – is an ADB initiative that could best be described as a rehash of ECO/SCO countries with the important addition of China.
The event held in partnership with SECP was themed around fostering stronger cross-border cooperation between capital markets of member nations. Speakers passionately laid emphasis on the need to learn from the ASEAN experience, which managed to create a common capital market exchange between member countries.
This not only required streamlining regulation to ease investor access across markets, but also creating common asset classes that has took market capitalization over $2 trillion within five years of common exchange formation.
It should be no surprise that cross-border capital market activity among most CAREC countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and ex-Soviet central Asian states is next to naught. For one, capital markets in most countries are underdeveloped, with narrow investor base and thin volumes. Second, low volume of trade in goods and services along with lack of cultural exchanges further diminishes the likelihood of portfolio investment.
The binding agent, between member nations if any, can be China, given its disproportionate economic footprint and newfound fascination with flexing political muscle in the region. Within Pakistan alone, optimism ran high until two years ago that securities market’s evolution will leapfrog in the advent of investment by a Chinese consortium.
Yet the activity on the roadmap offered by Chinese investors could at best be described as lukewarm. Although a cursory reading of events would lay the blame on the turbulence in equity markets in the two years since. But that would be a mistake.
Whether it’s CAREC, OBOR or any other intergovernmental initiative for infrastructure or financial markets development – Pakistan cannot expect dividends of regional cooperation to payoff under its headless chicken approach.
For regional cooperation to foster not only does the pivot need to be stable and permanent, it also needs consistency without Nietzschean declarations of ‘death of CPEC’ or other similar initiatives. Regional cooperation needs to be ‘seen to be done’, with continued fostering of cultural and private sector led trade and commerce exchanges, alongside of regular exchange on inter-government level.
This is not to discourage criticism and independent review of inter-governmental initiatives and foreign policy on their merits, but to highlight that if the trade-offs of regional cooperation are disadvantageous, they should be questioned from the offset.
Instead, the state has gotten in the habit of celebrating such initiatives as ‘break through such as never seen before’, stifling genuine criticism initially, and then undermining its commitments later when the reaper comes to collect its debt.
And if there is a single overarching reason for perpetual international isolation – perceived or real – it is the lack of consistency. From ‘fortress of Islam’, to ‘non-NATO ally’ and ‘all-weather friend’, policymakers need to give up their addiction to adrenaline rush from foreign policy rollercoaster ride, and learn to make their bed and then lay in it.