Pakistan’s National Security Policy Signals to India’s

It reflects, albeit partially, the thinking of the sizeable constituency in Pakistan that realises the importance of a stable relationship with India is in its own interest

by Sharat Sabharwal 

Pakistan has released the public version of what is billed as its first-ever National Security Policy (NSP). It stipulates, inter alia, economic security as the core of national security, an expansion of the economic pie, supplementing geostrategy with geoeconomics, making Pakistan a trade and connectivity hub, curbing extremism and terrorism, and inculcating a culture of introspection and pragmatism in defining national security interests. An impressive wish list indeed for a national security state. However, the devil will lie in its implementation.

The elephant in the room is Pakistan’s adversarial posture towards its much bigger and better-endowed neighbour — India. This, together with the primacy of its army, the growing and unaccountable defence expenditure, low resource mobilisation, a crushing debt burden, entrenched economic interests, extremist violence, and ethnic fissures accentuated by Punjabi dominance, largely accounts for Pakistan’s woes. The country, while counting increasingly on its nuclear arsenal for its defence, retains its obsession to keep up with India’s conventional military capability. The NSP mentions the “growing conventional force differential in the region,” but is silent on how the increasing defence outlays are to be tamed. One cannot see the Pakistan army giving up its India bogey — the mainstay of its primacy — and its business empire anytime soon.

Expanding the economic pie is an uphill task on account of vested interests draining the national treasury without contributing their due share to it and dampening economic activity by violence and terrorism. Pakistan’s growth rate remains very low, decent growth having been registered mainly during phases of large external aid inflows.

The NSP expresses the wish to improve relations with India, but places “a just and peaceful resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute” at the core of the bilateral relationship. This has been in essence the publicly articulated Pakistani position over the years. Given the ground realities, the only feasible peaceful solution to Kashmir will have to be non-territorial. The backchannel (2004-07) deliberations on the issue represented an important step in that direction. However, Pakistan did not show the courage and sagacity to take them to their logical conclusion. This begs the question: Does Pakistan want a mutually acceptable solution to Kashmir or use it as a perennial hostility plank against India? Things have since moved on with the withdrawal of the special status of J&K, China’s deeper involvement in the illegally occupied territory of “Gilgit-Baltistan” and its aggressive moves in eastern Ladakh.

Pakistan has pruned down its initial demand of reversing India’s August 5, 2019 move to the restoration of statehood to J&K and no change in the area’s demography. The restoration of statehood may come in due course, but no government in India would like it to be seen as a response to a Pakistani demand. There has been no mass influx into J&K to change its demography in a significant manner — something that Pakistan has done to the parts of J&K under its illegal occupation. Unless Pakistan takes a pragmatic approach to Kashmir and relations with India to promote the larger goals mentioned in the NSP, the conclusion that it sees Kashmir as a perpetual stick to beat India with will be inescapable.

Pakistan’s emphasis on geoeconomics without trade and transit links with India is an empty slogan. The access provided to China to the Makran coast is the only important economic linkage Pakistan provides. Pakistan can become a meaningful transit hub only by providing linkage, together with India, between Central/West Asia and beyond on one side and Southeast Asia and beyond on the other. However, it has continued to deny transit to India and blocked intra-regional connectivity in SAARC. Instead of addressing these issues, the NSP describes Pakistan’s eastward connectivity as being “held hostage to India’s regressive approach”.

The withdrawal of the MFN status by India in February 2019 was justifiable only as a retaliatory move. It did not have the potential to influence the calculus of Pakistan’s security establishment (Pakistan’s exports to India are less than 2 per cent of its global exports) and raised the cost of imports from the next-door market for the Indian consumer. Pakistan took an even more short-sighted step by suspending trade with India in August 2019 which would hurt its economy more than India’s. A move last year to permit the import of Indian cotton, cotton yarn and sugar was scuttled quickly by the Pakistan government. The Pak daily Express Tribune, quoting an official source, mentioned recently that trade could be normalised if there was progress in dialogue. The term progress is undefined, though I would expect Pakistan to revise its stand on trade at some stage under pressure from its business and industry.

Due to encouragement by politicians and the army for their selfish ends, including the perpetration of terrorism in the region, religious and sectarian extremism and the accompanying violence are deeply entrenched in Pakistan. Repeated attempts to regulate the madrasa education system and counter Pakistan’s rogue terror groups have come a cropper.

The aforementioned factors rule out any dramatic results of the NSP by way of an enduring change in the internal and external orientation of the Pakistani state. Because of stiff resistance by vested interests, any positive transformation will inevitably be a gradual process. However, we need to take note of the NSP for two reasons: First, it is a sign of Pakistan’s growing challenges, particularly economic, in continuing with its old policies; and second, because it reflects, albeit partially, the thinking of the sizeable constituency in Pakistan that realises the importance of a stable relationship with India in its own interest. Going forward, these factors should present us with opportunities to improve the relationship beyond the ceasefire restoration of February 2021 by way of resumption of trade and the upgradation of diplomatic representation, especially having senior interlocutors in each other’s capital. Whatever Pakistan’s problems, a calmer western front also suits us in focussing on the Chinese challenge.

The writer is former High Commissioner to Pakistan, and is the author of the forthcoming book, India’s Pakistan Conundrum — Managing a Complex Relationship