The biggest change to Pakistan’s salience has been the relative economic decline in relation to India. General Javed Bajwa’s speech is a recognition of two disconcerting facts—Pakistan’s longstanding neglect of geo-economics and the steady erosion of its geopolitical significance in the 21st century

by C Raja Mohan

Whether or not the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan meet on the margins of an international conference on Afghanistan in Dushanbe this week, speculation on the next steps in the re-engagement between Delhi and Islamabad has been growing. With the ceasefire holding on the Line of Control in the last few weeks, there is growing optimism about the prospects for a dialogue between India and Pakistan.

The medium-term prospects of this incipient peace process, however, depend on the evolution of Pakistan’s very interesting debate on geo-economics triggered by Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s speech a couple of weeks ago.

Bajwa’s call for “burying the past” with India and moving on is premised on the conviction that the time has come for Pakistan to relook at the weakening economic foundation of its national security. As an institution that sees itself as the guardian of Pakistan’s ideology and interests, it is not surprising that the Army has taken the lead in reframing the debate on relations with India. But persuading Pakistan to follow through might not be easy.

While mainstream civilian leaders like Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari traditionally supported the normalisation of ties with India, there is much despondency in Pakistan’s strategic policy community that sees Bajwa’s approach to India as an unacceptable political compromise.

Ashraf Qazi, a widely respected Pakistani diplomat who served as Pakistan’s envoy to India, China and the US wrote last week in Dawn that “defeat can’t be dressed up in ‘geo-economics’.” For Qazi and many others, reversing Delhi’s 2019 actions on Kashmir must remain a precondition for any engagement with India.

Qazi’s conclusion that Bajwa’s “geo-economic initiative towards a hegemonic and intransigent India can only indicate a lack of options”, is a bitter pill to swallow for an elite that has been brought up celebrating Pakistan’s geopolitical advantage at the crossroads of the Subcontinent, China, Russia, Central Asia and the Gulf.

Pakistan now stares at two disconcerting facts — the nation’s long-standing neglect of geo-economics and the steady erosion of Pakistan’s geopolitical significance in the 21st century.

The biggest change to Pakistan’s salience has been the relative economic decline in relation to India. Consider the fact that India’s aggregate GDP ($2.8 trillion) is now nearly 10 times larger than that of Pakistan ($280 billion). This profound shift does not easily compute with Pakistan’s long-standing claim for strategic parity with India. This is similar to India’s China story. Rapid growth in the last few decades has made the Chinese economy nearly five times larger than that of India’s.

The idea of parity with India has been part of Pakistan’s ideology since Independence. The secession of East Pakistan in 1971 undermined the notion of Rawalpindi’s parity with Delhi. But Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons at the end of the 1980s restored a sense of parity with India. Beyond parity, Pakistan saw nuclear weapons giving it the impunity to pursue cross-border terrorism against India and keep Delhi off-balance in Kashmir.

Washington’s focus on non-proliferation in the 1990s reinforced the notion of symmetry and parity between India and Pakistan. At the turn of the 20th century, Washington began to treat Delhi and Islamabad very differently, seeing India as critical to the construction of Asian stability disrupted by the rise of China. India’s high growth rates during the 1990s and Pakistan’s economic slowdown played no small part in the transformation of America’s South Asia policy.

Triumphalism in Pakistan about its new leverages with India in the 1990s prevented it from seeing the long-term strategic consequences of the unfolding economic differentiation. No amount of nuclear weapons in its arsenal can fix the problem of the growing economic imbalance with India.

Pakistan’s relative economic decline was not limited in comparison to India. It has also lost ground to Bangladesh. At the time of its secession in 1971, Bangladesh was much poorer than Pakistan. Today its aggregate and per capita GDP are larger than Pakistan’s. Unless Pakistan can get its house in order, its economic gap with Bangladesh will continue to widen in favour of Dhaka.

For nearly four decades, the tragic conflict in Afghanistan has provided the Pakistan Army immense leverage with other powers. Rawalpindi was unable, however, to translate that leverage into concrete economic gains. But worse still, it has become vulnerable to the very forces of religious extremism that it unleashed in destabilising Afghanistan.

With the US getting ready to turn its back on Afghanistan — it is a question of when, and not whether— Pakistan’s leverage with the West is bound to diminish. Even if it succeeds in installing a “friendly Taliban” on the Kabul throne, Rawalpindi will find it hard to insulate Pakistan from the deepening instability in Afghanistan.

There was a time when Pakistan was seen as the “net security provider” in the geography that we now call the Indo-Pacific. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the US and Britain drafted Pakistan into the Central Treaty Organisation for securing the Gulf to the west of the Subcontinent and Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation to the east. Pakistan’s geopolitical relevance has steadily diminished in both regions today. Pakistan’s shared religious identity, a leading role in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and military support to the Gulf monarchies certainly made Pakistan an important actor in the Gulf. Today, Pakistan cuts a tragic figure in the region, with its unending requests for financial support and a deep resentment at the warming ties between India and the Gulf nations. Pakistan faces an even bigger challenge from the rapidly deepening Sino-US tensions. Five decades ago, Pakistan was an important bridge between Washington and Beijing when the two sides normalised their bilateral relations. Indeed, Islamabad benefited from its strategic ties with Washington and Beijing.

It was one thing for Pakistan to celebrate its all-weather partnership with China when Washington and Beijing were on the same side. It is entirely another to be tarred China’s vassal state when the Sino-US conflict is gathering momentum and India is rapidly expanding security cooperation with the US. Rawalpindi continues to love China, but its passion for America and the West is deeper.

Bajwa sent the clearest signal on Pakistan’s rebalancing between the US and China in his speech. While underscoring the importance of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor for Pakistan, the Pak army chief said, “seeing Pakistan through the CPEC prism” alone will be misleading. For decades, Pakistan has relied on China, the Gulf and the US to balance India. That strategy is under increasing stress amidst the shifting regional and global equations. The Gulf and the West are now widely believed to be encouraging Pakistan to reorient its India policy in a more positive direction.

On the face of it, Delhi can’t directly influence Pakistan’s domestic debate on geo-economics. But it surely can make a difference, at least on the margins. Delhi should welcome that limited but important strategic opportunity.