Is Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff really serious about peace and South Asia regionalism?

Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa was recently in the news in India and surprisingly for a different reason. In his speech at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, General Bajwa expressed willingness for improving ties with India. According to General Bajwa, “stable Indo-Pak relations is a key to unlock the untapped potential of South and Central Asia by ensuring connectivity between East and West Asia”. Interestingly, General Bajwa was referring to the geo-economics and the potential of South Asian regionalism linking it with India-Pakistan peace.

This proposition is not new to the academic circles working on South Asian regionalism. South Asia is one of the least integrated regions of the world despite socio-cultural closeness. India-Pakistan tensions are regarded as one of the main reasons for the lack of regionalism in South Asia.

Now when General Bajwa is talking about peace with India, what does it mean? Normally, we believe that such speeches are diplomatic moves and meant for the consumption of the international community. Also, experts believe that there is a strong anti-India feeling in the Pakistani army, and any sudden change is impossible. So shall we read this peace posturing of General Bajwa as a gimmick? Let’s try to decode the speech of General Bajwa looking into some of the recent changes.

Political Reason

Foremost, there is a political reason. General Bajwa was speaking publicly after India-Pakistan recently agreed to implement the 2003 ceasefire agreement at the LoC. Post Balakot airstrike (2019) by the Indian Air Force, there have been no attempts by the Pakistani state to reach out to New Delhi. Moreover, revocation of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir by India in August 2019 was vehemently opposed by Pakistan. While India defended its sovereign right to make constitutional changes in regard to Jammu & Kashmir, Pakistan made a lot of hue and cry. Over the years, Islamabad had left no stone unturned to internationalise the Kashmir issue; this was more evident after the revocation of Article 370.

While the international community viewed political changes in Jammu & Kashmir as sensitive, it nevertheless agreed that Jammu & Kashmir is India’s internal matter. To the dismay of Pakistan, even its long-term allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) refused to offer it any help on the Kashmir issue. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE acknowledged the Indian position on Jammu & Kashmir.

The UAE persuaded the Pakistani establishment to initiate dialogue with India. Other major powers also want peaceful relations between India and Pakistan and keep advocating it. General Bajwa’s speech in this regard can be considered as an attempt to accommodate the opinion of the international community on India-Pakistan relations.

Economic Necessity

There is also an economic necessity. Pakistan’s economy is under stress. In 2020 due to Covid-19, Pakistan’s GDP growth rate slipped from 1.9% to -1.5%. Pakistan is also under the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) watchlist which has the mandate to keep an eye on money laundering and terror funding. Pakistan is on the grey list, which means it is considered safe for terror funding and money laundering. This affects the international economic reputation of Pakistan.

A country facing economic hardship cannot afford a negative image as it hampers prospects of international investment and trade. To revive its economy, Pakistan requires a clearance from the FATF, and for that, it needs to put an effective check on the anti-India terror groups based in Pakistan. The next review of Pakistan by FATF is in June 2021, and the changed approach of General Bajwa towards India could be read in that context.

Burying the past but keeping the lessons is a pertinent phrase in any discussion on India-Pak ties. One shall not forget that there are elements in Pakistan who will try their best to disrupt any move of peace between the two. For India, there are bitter memories like the Kargil War (1999), Mumbai terror attack (2008) and Pathankot terrorist attack (2016).

Tragically, the Kargil War and all of these major terror attacks were planned by elements in Pakistan when the Indian political leadership took steps for peace and normalisation of relations between the two. Mostly, it is the Pakistani military establishment that remained opposed to stable India-Pak ties. That is why coming from General Bajwa, a speech favouring peace is a little unusual, but it carries weight within Pakistan.

Trade Ties

It is good to see that General Bajwa speaks a different language using words like geo-economics, connectivity and human security in his public speech. Looking at the above-mentioned reasons — political and economic, it appears that General Bajwa is serious about peace with India. Still, mere words will not be enough.

There is a need to develop a conducive atmosphere for improving the relationship between India and Pakistan. This one can start with trade. In 2018, the World Bank in one of its reports estimated the potential of $37 billion trade between the two. Notably, India-Pakistan trade suffered a major setback in the last couple of years. The formal trade was almost nil as Pakistan, after the revocation of Article 370 by India, suspended trade and snapped air, rail, and land links. There was a formal trade of almost $2 billion between the two countries, and interestingly double that was the informal trade.

If we forget political bitterness, these two countries have too much in common to positively impact trade. Post-partition, India and Pakistan had robust trade relations. According to the 2012 report of USAID on India-Pakistan trade, “In 1948-1949, India’s share of Pakistan’s global exports was approximately 23.6 per cent while its share of Pakistan’s global imports was approximately 50.6 per cent”. In the present circumstances, it appears to be a daunting task to touch these old figures in India-Pakistan trade; however, there are ample possibilities for improvement.

Now when General Bajwa is signalling for a change in Pakistan’s outlook towards India, the best is to resume the commercial relationship. To conclude, yes, peace will be better than hostility for India-Pakistan and the whole of South Asia.