Pakistan was conceived as a geographical entity with an Islamic identity. Its founding leaders were helped by the fact that the departing British and their American cousins understood early the strategic significance of Pakistan’s geographical location. Located southeast of the Soviet Union, southwest of China, west of India, east of Iran and the Arab states and at the head of the Arabian Sea, West Pakistan was "geo-strategically" blessed throughout the Cold War era. It first became a military ally of the United States and then enjoyed the benefits of a ménage-a-trois during America’s honeymoon with China.
The loss of the eastern flank in 1971 coincided with the increased importance of the western flank’s "geo-strategic" importance during the US-China entente cordiale and the subsequent US "War on Terror". Little wonder then that the recently published National Security Policy of Pakistan 2022-2026 (NSPP) repeatedly uses the term "geo-strategic", to underline the continued relevance of Pakistan to its region and to the world.
The world, however, is rapidly changing. The Americans’ retreat from Afghanistan, the Russia-China condominium in Eurasia, the emerging new equations in West Asia and India’s own rise, even if it has faltered more recently, have combined to reduce Pakistan’s geopolitical relevance to the Big Powers. The influence recently acquired in Afghanistan is a mixed blessing for Pakistan. Indeed, the return of the Taliban to power next door could exacerbate Pakistan’s internal security threats arising out of Islamic radicalism, terrorism and "violent sub-nationalisms", as the NSPP states.
So, how does Pakistan reinvent the relevance of its geography and boost its national security given the emerging multipolar balance of power system? In the words of Moeed Yusuf, Pakistan’s national security adviser, the NSPP offers "a geo-economic paradigm that supplements its geo-strategic approach". The essence of this "geo-economic paradigm" consists in positioning Pakistan as an economic link between Eurasia and maritime Asia (West Asia and Southeast Asia), Africa and Europe.
"Our geo-economically pivotal location", the NSPP declares, "in an economically and strategically relevant region" affords Pakistan the ability to "offer itself as a melting pot of regional and global economic interests through connectivity initiatives". Elsewhere, the document says: "Pakistan’s location at the crossroads of historic confluence provides unique opportunities amidst regional and global competition, especially as a hub for connecting important economic and resource-rich regions."
If during the Cold War era and during the War on Terror Pakistan had used its geography as a military ally of the Big Powers, in the emerging multipolar world it seeks to deploy its geography as an economic hub. "Pakistan’s geo-economic pivot", says the NSPP "is focused on enhancing trade and economic ties through connectivity that links Central Asia to our warm waters." The authors of the NSPP want Pakistan to take advantage of its "geo-economically pivotal location to operate as a production, trade and investment and connectivity hub for our wider region to strengthen our economic security".
However, to be able to make use of this geo-economic opportunity, says the NSPP, Pakistan has to modernise its economy and invest in the education and welfare of its people. Many are unaware today that till the 1980s Pakistan’s economy had outperformed India’s. India’s economic rise really began in the 1980s, while Pakistan consistently fell behind over the next two decades. While it saw an improvement in its economic fortunes during the years that Gen. Pervez Musharraf was in power, there has been a downward slide since then.
For this reason, the NSPP states clearly that "Pakistan’s vital national security interests are best served by placing economic security as the core element of national security". The document seeks an improvement in Pakistan’s external economic balances and a reduction on both inter-class and inter-regional inequalities within the country. The policy focus is on offering Pakistan as a base for foreign investment, presumably by China, the West Asian states, European Union nations and other capital surplus economies.
Fiscal reform, the ease of doing business and investments in the skilling of the local population aimed at increasing inward remittances through the export of skilled labour figure prominently in the NSPP’s to-do list. The NSPP has several other policy recommendations in the areas of economic and defence policy, information technology, space and cyber capability, the blue economy, shipbuilding and so on.
While the NSPP makes all the expected statements about India that would naturally irritate Indian readers, it should be clear to both the document’s authors and its readers that Pakistan cannot operationalise its proposed "geo-economic pivot" without establishing stable and good relations with India. For this reason, the NSPP could be viewed as an indication of new thinking in Pakistan on relations with India, and not dismissed as old wine in new bottles, as some have done.
The document is candid in its admission of the internal security challenges facing Pakistan. Indeed, they are no different from India’s own internal security challenges, shaped by poor governance, lack of economic opportunities, threats ranging from sectarianism, violent sub-nationalism, extremism, narcotics and organised crime and terrorism. While India points fingers at Pakistan over "cross-border terrorism", with some solid evidence, the NSPP does a tit-for-tat without evidence.
Interestingly, while the NSPP has received much attention in India, with several policy analysts commenting on it, in Pakistan itself there have been many critics. The highly regarded Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi has dismissed the document as an "under-graduate’s term paper".
Whatever the merits and drawbacks, the Imran Khan government should be complimented for producing a medium-term vision for the country that is focused on national economic development as a route to enhanced national security. The government has made the summary document public, perhaps partly to please creditor nations and institutions to whom Pakistan is at present heavily indebted.
It wants them to know that their dollars, riyal and yuan will be put to good use.
India’s National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) had also produced a national security strategy paper as early as in 2000. This columnist wrote its chapter on economic security. Alas, successive governments have kept it and subsequent papers of the NSAB under wraps. India too deserves an informed debate on what policies would enhance national security and what are in fact harming it.