PAKISTAN has been looking eastward as well as westward for cooperation and security for political, economic opportunities and market access. The relationship between Pakistan and ASEAN countries did not take off as per Pakistan’s Vision East Asia, whereas progress is being made. It will take some years for ASEAN and Pakistan to establish a mature political, economic and security relationship. The ASEAN region is a hub of international, regional and sub-regional organizations and multinational companies, which not only enhance the geostrategic and political importance of the ASEAN region, but also put Pakistan in a competitive economic environment, especially in the background of the ASEAN’s Free Trade Area (AFTA) agreements signed with several states and organisations. Pakistan’s relations with the ASEAN countries are normal, friendly and unmarred by any conflict or disputes. They cooperate with one another on full range of international issues of common interest. Pakistan is having the support of majority members of the ASEAN countries for becoming a full dialogue partner, but it could not succeed because of historic baggage of rivalry with India, which stole a march on Pakistan by becoming a full dialogue partner of the ASEAN in 2014.
The ASEAN is an important region in global decision-making at the United Nations and its related organizations and international financial institutions. Pakistan needs their support on UN reform, peacekeeping, disarmament issues, international finance, post-2016 development agenda, climate change, human rights and elections in the UN and other international bodies. Pakistan and the ASEAN countries’ trade and economic relations have not reached a level of maturity and engagement where full dialogue partnership or the possibility of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) becomes attractive and compelling. However, trade and investment between the two parties are expanding. Pakistan needs to have comprehensive economic agreements covering trade in goods, services, and investment with all the ASEAN countries.
Rather, the Pakistani business community needs to be involved in the drafting of free trade agreements with ASEAN. The reasons for this are twofold: a) It shall help develop an agreement that takes into consideration various sectors of the industry, and gives concessions that would help these sectors to develop, hence increasing the competitiveness of local manufacturers and industries; b) It shall create awareness amongst the business community of new opportunities for trade available as many items in the FTA have the 0% tariff track; a fact many of the local manufacturers and exporters appear to be unaware of. There is a scope to invite private businesses to invest in Pakistan in various sectors such as agro-food industry, chemicals and petrochemicals, infrastructure development, banking, insurance, energy, automobiles, software industry, auto parts manufacturing, construction, sea food/fish processing industry or fisheries, food processing, packaging, gems and jewellery, information technology, agriculture, telecommunication, and hotel industries, etc. They can also enter into joint ventures with Pakistani counterparts, which can fulfill the investment needs of Pakistan.
Pakistan’s “Vision East Asia Policy” suffers from less priority due to Pakistan’s engagements in the war against terrorism, spillover effects from Afghanistan’s situation and internal security challenges. The ASEAN countries appreciate Pakistan’s efforts in establishing and maintaining peace in the region and consider Pakistan a stronger partner in the international community in fight against terrorism. Pakistan got the membership of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) because it is a significant military power with nuclear weapon capability and its major role in war against terrorism. There are several measures that need to be taken in the field of terrorism by the both. First, ASEAN countries and Pakistan should tighten control over illegal human trafficking crossing ASEAN countries and Pakistan. This measure requires tighter immigration control by the two sides. Secondly, Pakistan and the ASEAN countries should find modalities for maritime cooperation. This should be implemented more in bilateral and operational levels. The forms of cooperation could be trilateral and bilateral. Thirdly, the ASEAN countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei) and Pakistan should develop cooperation in education, especially with regard to religious schools. The main idea here is that there should be joint efforts to promote better understanding of the role of the religion in societal development.
ASEAN nations cannot ignore Pakistan as an important geopolitical entity with nuclear capability. Pakistan has to go an extra mile in terms of increasing her exports in the region. Pakistan has to improve growth equity, quality control and sustainable policy. Pakistan requires greater regional cooperation as a reward for its role in making world peaceful place to live. Regional cooperation is a must for economic prosperity. It is often stated that there exists considerable possibilities for the expansion of trade between ASEAN and Pakistan. In this connection, it is suggested that the private sector needs to be encouraged and provided with the requisite information about the competitiveness and availability of tradable goods.
—The writer works at Islamabad Policy Research Institute, a think-tank based in Islamabad.