Pakistan Should Remember Its Friends In The Commonwealth

Pakistan Should Remember Its Friends In The Commonwealth
The conundrum of Pakistan’s place in the world is a challenging one.

Despite its closeness with Beijing, Islamabad has also managed to maintain close and valuable ties to the West. Pakistan’s hand has been strongest when it can act as an honest broker between the Muslim world, the West, and China. In 1971, it was Yahya Khan who proved critical in securing a meeting between US President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Today, this curious ability to sit in both camps is perhaps best exemplified by the country’s two largest overseas investors: China on top, and Britain at number two.

Yet current trends indicate that honest brokers may soon become an endangered species. As the Americans and Chinese jockey for global leadership, middle powers risk being left out in the cold for failing to comply with one side or the other.

Instead of striking up an imperfect marriage with an uneasy bedfellow, Pakistan should instead consider an ambitious programme of diplomatic diversification. Reliance on just one partner could prove fatal; a robust and diverse network of relationships is crucial for reinforcing national sovereignty.

Fortunately, Pakistan has a ready-made avenue for such an initiative, in the shape of the Commonwealth. With fifty-six member states stretched across every corner of the globe, the Commonwealth is home to some of the world’s fastest growing and most dynamic economies. Its member states are united by use of the English language in business and administration, the Westminster model of parliamentary governance, and common law jurisprudence.

They also share many of Pakistan’s key geopolitical objectives: reinforcement of national sovereignty, an open and fair system of international commerce, and the need to reform global governance institutions.

And remarkably, the old club is still growing – as recently as 2022, Togo and Gabon joined, two of the four Commonwealth members with no link to the British Empire.

Concerted engagement with the Commonwealth provides an opportunity for Pakistan to improve its clout at international institutions and maintain allies in the world’s key theatres of conflict. It also serves as a useful way to reinforce links with some of the country’s largest diaspora populations, particularly in Britain, Canada, and South Africa.

There are tangible economic upsides too; Commonwealth states enjoy 21% lower bilateral trading costs, faster dispute resolution, and more effective international investments. Commonwealth states like Britain, Singapore, and Australia are some of the largest sources of foreign direct investment in the world, with deep pools of reliable creditors who should be induced to direct their attention towards Pakistan. More straightforwardly, the Commonwealth is home to some 2.6 billion people, including the fast-growing African middle class, a ripe market for Pakistani rice, garments, and fruit.

Perhaps most importantly though, reorienting its focus around the Commonwealth would allow Pakistan to draw on the wealth of accrued knowledge stored up in its fifty-six member states. Commonwealth states are Pakistan’s most natural partners for institutional and constitutional reform.

The foundations of Pakistan’s systems of governance are found replicated across the Commonwealth, living remnants of the British Empire which have been shaped over decades to reflect dozens of particular national contexts. In those decades, lessons have been learned, and systems refined. According to the University of Oxford, the four most effective civil services in the world are found in the Commonwealth – Pakistan should adopt the procurement and hiring systems which help to make these systems so successful.

This ‘Commonwealth factor’ is equally potent at the judicial level. One of the great virtues of the common law is its flexibility, and its ability to draw on legal judgments from other jurisdictions in comparable cases. Pakistan’s controversial judiciary would bolster its credibility by drawing on rulings from other Commonwealth jurisdictions, showing a respect for international legal standards and an understanding that there is nothing new under the sun.

Yet there are less obvious examples too. In 2021, Pakistan saw foreign direct investment of just 0.6% of GDP, down from 3.7% in 2007. In the same year, Fiji saw that number hit 9.5% - in Gabon, 8.1% and in Sierra Leone, 5.3%. Despite being one of the world’s poorest nations as recently as the mid-1990s, even Rwanda was able to post a respectable 1.9%, down from its pre-pandemic 3.8%.

Pakistan should establish a working group with Commonwealth developing states who have shaped successful investment regimes and use this experience to inform its own legal environment. Focusing on Rwanda’s story for a moment, the small East African nation ranked 143 in the world on the Ease of Doing Business Index in 2010; today, it sits at number 38.

An ambitious package of reforms has helped to deliver prosperity to Rwanda despite the odds. Small and medium sized businesses are exempt from taxation for the first two years of their investments, and the country’s regulatory system has been slimmed down and digitised. Pakistan should draw on these lessons and modernise its investment regime using best practice from elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

On climate, building links with newly joined Gabon could help Pakistan to improve its environmental conservation efforts. 88% of Gabon’s surface is covered with native rainforest, a remarkable achievement resulting from decades of investment and planning. In turn, this conservation is paying dividends for the small central African nation, which is now benefitting from an influx of eco-tourism. Drawing on its expert knowledge could help to preserve Pakistan’s delicate ecosystems, particularly its precious Himalayan pine forests.

Closer to home, Pakistan should ally with Bangladesh to build an integrated supply chain for flood-resilient infrastructure. A recent study estimated that 58% of Bangladesh’s 169 million people are vulnerable to flooding – and as recent events in Sindh have shown, this is a problem shared by both of South Asia’s Muslim nations. Combatting ecological disaster will require them to pool their expertise, industrial capabilities, and research capacity, tackling this shared problem together instead of thinly spreading their limited resources.

Whatever its exact shape, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would do well to embark on a concerted Commonwealth initiative, diversifying relationships while drawing on expert knowledge from an array of dynamic nations. Get it right, and Pakistan could cement its place as a bridge between civilisations, while delivering prosperity and stability for its people.

The author is a Parliamentary Researcher at the House of Commons and Director of the Centre for Commonwealth Affairs