Ambassador Salman Bashir served as the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan from 2008 to 2012 and the High Commissioner of India from 2012 to 2014. Prior to that, he served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to China, Mongolia, Denmark and Lithuania. Ambassador Salman Bashir explains where Pakistan needs to focus in the coming decade on its foreign policy front and how this is ultimately related to its domestic policies, especially on the economy. This interview is part of a series for the January Issue of Global Village Space magazine looking at the next decade for Pakistan – its strategic challenges and opportunities (2021-30).
GVS: What are the challenges Pakistan would face and what opportunities will it have in the next 10 years on the foreign policy front?
Ambassador Salman Bashir: I think looking at the decade ahead, I think we have to be optimistic in the first place, about ourselves, about our future, the advantages that we have, and bring about an internal character transformation in the sense of having a greater confidence, internally, on where we want to get to. It also requires in having a leadership that has a vision and that is determined to take our nation forward.
In terms of our core priorities, we ought to give the top priority to our socio-economic development and let everything else flow from it. In terms of our policies, whether be it domestic or foreign, and of course in the domain of foreign affairs we ought to use whatever opportunities, which are there or will be available to us in the coming years to build our economic strength; that requires a holistic and comprehensive approach.
Clarity of purpose and direction, confidence and determined effort is required in all domains, be it in terms of political systems, building institutions, capabilities, etc. but being very clear what our number 1 priority is and how we should tailor everything accordingly.
We need to look at China very closely how they were able in the last three decades, become almost the number 1 economy in the world. They made development as their topmost strategic priority and tailored everything else accordingly, and that has paid immense dividends, of course, they had certain capacities, which we will probably also need as we go along. However, it’s a very uncertain situation globally.
The world, the international order that we have known for almost seventy years, is changing and its going to transform, mutate in a very drastic but fundamental way and that requires a correct understanding of global trends and dynamics that will shape these next 10 years or more. Despite the transformations that will pose challenges they will also bring with them a lot of opportunities.
Looking at it in the short term in the next two-three years, the first event that will have a sort of medium-term impact, if not lasting impact, is the aftereffects of COVID. It has already disrupted economies everywhere, whether it’s the west or the developing countries of the south, so we need to see where are the advantages that we can avail.
We see China attaching priority to stimulating their domestic demand, for instance, consumer spending, etc. The US is also doing the same with the trillion dollars stimulus packages. However, what we are doing is, we are retrenching, by applying prescriptions that are no longer valid in the post-COVID age. We need to be building our domestic demand and economic strength.
Second, I think we need to become more aware and mindful of the opportunities closer to home; that is bilateral trade with the neighbours, and generally in the region. In this context, I think we need to avail ourselves opportunities that we have already created, say like differential tariff trade arrangements with countries of ASEAN and the FTA with China and do a bit more with Central Asia and beyond to utilise the regional organisations such as the SCO and the ECO, etc. for building economic connectivity and trade connectivity.
The biggest thing going plus for us is the corridor concept CPEC, but we need to have a clear CPEC vision, that is China-Pakistan trust, which means CPEC connectivity going in all directions, north, south, east and west.
Eventually maybe at some point in time, if things do not further deteriorate with India, we should not close our minds to having bilateral trade arrangements with India as well, because if we are going to attach priority to development then, of course, we need to do all that is necessary. Actually, we already had, back in 2013-14, arrived at an understanding on the discriminatory market access with India, but then, of course, politics went wrong in India and it didn’t happen.
So in any case what I am saying is that at the right time, not now, and if there is some positive change in Delhi in terms of their politics and their mentality, the possibility may arise, but before that, of course, there are other opportunities right now, which we need to sort of build and translate. In this regard, we are already doing some things with Afghanistan, and more can be done. We ought to become energy self-sufficient both by investments in the oil and gas sector and other renewables and see how soon and how efficiently and effectively we can work the gas pipeline with Iran.
Basically in a nutshell: strategic priority one, should be development and that may require tailoring our politics internal and foreign policy external to that requirement, and of course not to forget the human resource development, because without that nothing is going to work. So establishing programs and institutions for vocational training. We should really sort of mindful of that we have a rather young population, the demography is positive for us, our geography is absolutely fantastic, in terms of the connectivity and linkages, and we are reasonable in technology, and technology in today’s world, everywhere is transforming lives, it has already transformed lives in Pakistan and generally in all strata and it is a huge enabler.
We ought to use all these elements, some of the more far-sighted nations have already importance to these free trade arrangements like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that ASEAN has built with China, Japan, and South Korea, so that’s the way forward. On the contrary, we are seeing in the west, in the US these other hyper nationalism and protectionist trends. I don’t think we should fall victim to these ideas because these are self-defeating.
GVS: Which countries do you think we should focus on? Because you are saying that we should stay close to home. Should we focus more on the China and Asia? What are our relations with US with Biden coming into power?
Ambassador Salman Bashir: With Biden coming into power, I hope they will reassess things for their own interest and their outlook of the world. The US administration has in my view wrongly read the global situation. Their own society has transformed, as have societies all over the world. The policies that they have sort of announced, their intention to pursue them has defined that they are self-defeating but as far as Pakistan is concerned, I think we will have to be creative.
It does not have to be China only, the Chinese themselves want good relations with the US. I don’t see the coming decade at the edge of bloc politics. Those who believe in alliances and counter alliances will realise that it is no longer possible in today’s world because of globalisation, interdependence and due to the supply chains and so on.
So the dependence factor is a reality, but an inclusive approach where we give priority to regional trade and other opportunities like technology and education, and investments if they happen to be in United States or Canada that would be wonderful.
I’m not saying that we just you know if our strategic priority is development then it means whatever is available and wherever it is available in terms of trade, technology, and capital. So, the traditional mindset that you are with this, not with this, with Saudis and not with Iran, is wrong. Our economic interests should define our policies.
As per GVS policy, the interview transcript of Ambassador Salman Bashir has minor editing, done by GVS Desk for reading clarity.