The lobby of a leading five-star hotel in Colombo was abuzz with foreign ministers and ministerial teams of 23 member states of the Indian Ocean Rim Association. They were in the coastal capital city of Sri Lanka to deliberate on the possibility of cooperation in trade and investment, maritime safety and security, fisheries management, disaster risk management, and blue economy. Even though Pakistan is a primary littoral state in the Indian Ocean region, with a chunk of its trade coming through its two ports in the Arabian Sea, the country is not a part of this regional forum.
At the same hotel in Colombo, the South Asian editors assembled to discuss regional integration, cooperation and engagement at the World Bank-initiated #OneSouthAsia meeting. The participating editors from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Pakistan considered economic connectivity, climate change resilience and human development. They talked of building momentum for regional integration through alliances, such as IORA, Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral, Technical, and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Bangladesh-Bhutan-Nepal-India (BBNI), and South Asia Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The course of every discussion affirmed that Pakistan is perched precariously on the sidelines in the region.
All in all, the hotel on October 9 and 10, 2023, emanated an air of hope and harmony, the sweet smell of a promising future. Pakistan missed out on an important chance to absorb some of it. The country seems to be looking away from regional integration opportunities in South Asia and more towards Afghanistan, Middle and Central Asia – and, of course, balancing between China and the US.
“Pakistan is stuck on the outside looking in, and in its own region. It’s why Pakistan is scoping out opportunities elsewhere,” says Michael Kugelman, Director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. “Pakistan recognises its options are limited within South Asia.”
It’s hard for Pakistan to hone in on relationships closer to home because India has so much influence in South Asian countries. Also, Pakistan’s chronic economic stress does not help its cause. Kugelman adds that India has effectively sought to sideline SAARC by turning to sub-regional groupings, like BIMSTEC, of which Pakistan isn’t a member – “In many cases, Pakistan does not even have much to offer them beyond the benefits they get from commercial cooperation with India.”
Even if there were no technological challenges, Pakistan would still be at a disadvantage because it generates power at a high cost, which renders it non-competitive
According to the World Bank, over 77 million lack access to electricity in South Asia. Despite traditional differences, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan are exploring the potential of electricity trade and are in the process of adopting a regional market approach in South Asia. They have made some progress in overcoming challenges, such as financing and political commitment, to enhance power exchanges. Together, since 2010, they have connected almost 350 million people.
Pakistan, however, has not made any significant progress – and around 54 million people remain unconnected. It has not been able to make the most of power trade by selling surplus electricity and importing when in need, mainly due to technical and infrastructural constraints. “Pakistan lacks system synchronisation and integration with other South Asian countries,” says Abid Qaiyum Suleri.
Even if there were no technological challenges, Pakistan would still be at a disadvantage because it generates power at a high cost, which renders it non-competitive. “Even if Pakistan was a competitive producer, it would be difficult to sell electricity to the South Asian neighbours in an ambience of geopolitical mistrust and supply disruption concerns,” says Suleri.
Also, he adds, Pakistan does not import electricity from India because of mistrust and concerns of supply disruption – the fear that India can stop the supply of electricity over any issue.
Low hanging fruits
Power trade aside, Pakistan is unable to explore the huge potential in commerce with the regional countries because it is caught between its political and economic follies and the geopolitics – in a region dominated by great power rivalries between India and China.
“One option for Pakistan is to try to ride the coattails of its ally China in the region and get in on some of Beijing’s infrastructure projects in the SAARC countries that are a part of BRI-and that is essentially all of them other than India. In this way, Pakistan could get a toehold in its neighbourhood and use that to build out more influence and a deeper footprint,” he adds.
Thus, Sri Lanka could be a good place to start – because it’s arguably Pakistan’s closest friend in South Asia at the moment.
Despite the high potential for bilateral trade in tea, textile products and pharmaceuticals, rice, fruit, and cement, neither Pakistan nor Sri Lanka is in the other country’s top 10 export or import destinations. The two countries signed the Pakistan Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (PSFTA) in August 2002 (effective July 2005). Also, the two countries are part of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) and the South Asia Preferential Trade Agreement (SAPTA). Therefore, for Pakistan, Sri Lanka could be a good place to start any form of regional cooperation. “Geographic factors and economic stress limit the options for cooperation, but this doesn’t rule out talks about possible future cooperation in mutually beneficial spaces — from aquaculture to clean energy technology,” says Kugelman.
"The two countries must start cooperating and bring humility to the table. Religious hatred will not do either country any good"
Clear the environment
If there is no planet, there is no trade, right? Every country knows that climate change is the most pressing concern in the region. What they are ignoring, though, is no one country can possibly solve this problem. The states must connect with each other freely, just as freely as the air, often polluted, sweeps across borders and boundaries.
All climate issues are regional issues, including GLOFs, flash floods, air quality, and water pollution. But as natural disasters pile up, cooperation on climate is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. There cannot be any isolated solutions in the region. “We are destined by shared ecosystems, riversides and mountains. We don’t love each other, but for the sake of saving our environment, we must learn to live with each other harmoniously – to prosper and survive as a civilization,” says Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, climate change specialist.
The states must use instruments like SDGs, the Sendi framework and the Paris Agreement to coordinate and synchronise their efforts. “With millions of people under the age of 30 living in India and Pakistan, we owe it to them. The two countries must start cooperating and bring humility to the table. Religious hatred will not do either country any good,” he adds.
Pakistan must step up its regional game to participate effectively in trade, connectivity and climate change initiatives – at all possible forums for profits and the wellbeing of its own people. The region must overcome nationalism and racism; it must come together and peacefully cooperate – enemies must become partners.