Why Pakistan matters to Southeast Asia

Photo: 7/23/2019 One Year In: A Conversation with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan flickr photo by U.S. Institute of Peace shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Pakistan may not be an attractive partner for ASEAN yet but the state requires greater attention—from its trade potential, to its security expertise and its role in geopolitics.

By Umair Jamal

Why is Pakistan a security state?

Pakistan’s foreign policy has traditionally focused on developing relations with major powers such as the United States and China. Since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, the quest for security vis-a-vis India has remained a fundamental factor in Islamabad’s foreign policymaking.

India and Pakistan have fought three major wars and countless smaller skirmishes which continue today, and Islamabad considers India an existential threat.

Over the last two decades, Pakistan’s desire to develop a relationship with ASEAN has suffered due to Islamabad’s worsening internal security situation. Pakistan has fought a full-blown internal insurgency for more than a decade.

However, recently, the country has sought to diversify its foreign policy, to reduce its dependency on Washington and Beijing. This also involves deepening commercial and diplomatic ties with ASEAN member states.

Pakistan’s political leadership no longer supports foreign policy driven security, meaning the country’s longstanding “Vision East Asia,” aimed at promoting economic and diplomatic ties with East Asia and ASEAN is more likely to materialize.   

That said, Pakistan will have to implement serious domestic reforms before ASEAN considers the country a player that could add value to Southeast Asia’s development.

What is Pakistan’s Vision East Asia policy?

Islamabad’s Vision East Asia isn’t new: for a long time, Pakistan has worked to raise its profile in Southeast Asia via improved diplomatic and official interactions.

In 1954, Pakistan joined a Southeast Asia-focused defense treaty, commonly known as the Manila Pact, which established the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) with the help of the United States to defend the region’s security interests from the Soviet Union. Pakistan was the only outsider that signed the treaty alongside the Philippines and Thailand. SEATO was suspended in 1977 after multiple members lost interest and withdrew.

The next twenty years didn’t see much activity between Islamabad and Southeast Asia. The region hardly figured as a topic of discussion in the country’s diplomatic agenda.

In 2003, Pakistan formally launched its Vision East Asia policy to boost bonds with Southeast Asia and East Asia. However, not much happened to support the vision for the next few years as Pakistan got bogged down in managing domestic militancy. Today in Pakistan, Southeast Asia is described as a “non-traditional trading region,” showing that cooperation remains underdeveloped. 

However, Pakistan’s constitutional identity as an “Islamic republic” means that historically, the country has developed ties with other Muslim majority countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia.

In 2008, Malaysia and Pakistan signed a Free Trade Agreement, later turning Malaysia into one of Pakistan’s top five import partners. In 2012, Pakistan and Malaysia signed a Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) to further enhance trade ties. Malaysia’s ambassador in Pakistan recently said the agreement has “played a major role in enhancing bilateral trade and the trade volume, which was only 700 million dollars in 2010, jumped to 2.18 billion in 2015.”

Pakistan has yet to expand its ties in ASEAN beyond Malaysia and Indonesia or develop strong a relationship with the ASEAN organization itself.  To do so, Islamabad will have to upgrade its status with ASEAN from “sectoral relations” to become a full dialogue member of the forum. However, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon for multiple reasons, including India’s opposition, as one of 10 current ASEAN dialogue members, to any such proposal.

What will it take for Pakistan to impress ASEAN leadership?

So far, Pakistan’s efforts to make inroads into some Southeast Asian countries have not been successful. For Pakistan to become an attractive partner for ASEAN states, it will have to become a more competitive in trade and offer value as a bilateral partner. Pakistan could do so by manufacturing products or offering military expertise that may not be available in the ASEAN market already.

As most countries in ASEAN also face Islamic militancy, Pakistan can offer up its considerable experience in training troops in counterinsurgency missions. It is pertinent to mention here that Pakistan’s army has won a war against a full-blown domestic insurgency.

There is a precedent for cooperation based on Pakistan’s counterinsurgency expertise: in 2005, Pakistan and ASEAN signed a declaration for cooperation to combat terrorism, including in matters of “security, intelligence, and law enforcement.” For Pakistan, there is plenty of scope to revive and build on this agreement in order to expand into other areas of cooperation, including pushing for a region-wide free trade agreement and becoming a full dialogue member of ASEAN.  

However, for that to happen, Pakistan will have rid itself of its image as a state sponsor of terrorism. Islamabad will have to convince ASEAN that the country is committed to rooting out militancy rather than becoming a haven for militant groups targeting neighboring states.    

In courting ASEAN, Islamabad can also turn to the Pakistani diaspora in Southeast Asia—one of the largest across the world. The current government in Pakistan needs to make efforts to engage established Pakistani communities across Southeast Asia and involve them in representing the country’s interests in ASEAN’s policy-making circles.

Additionally, Pakistan needs to make sure it doesn’t bring the country’s conflict with India to ASEAN. On Pakistan’s part, the temptation to search for support is understandable, but doing so can only undermine Islamabad’s efforts to expand its economic and diplomatic base in Southeast Asia. “Pakistan’s engagement of Southeast Asia should be a standalone pursuit, rather than engaging Southeast Asia as a countermove to India. Doing so would regretfully take Pakistan down an ill-advised path of frustration and futility,” noted South Asia scholars Sidra Tariq Jamil and Mustafa Izzuddin in an article published in The Diplomat.

Why should Pakistan matter to ASEAN?

Pakistan is of growing importance for the international community, including Southeast Asia.

“[US] President Barak Obama called me a few days after his inauguration…and said that no issue on his foreign policy agenda was more important than the fate of Pakistan, which he rightly described as the epicenter of the global terrorist threat today,” noted Stephen Cohen in his book The Future of Pakistan.

Currently the sixth largest country in the world in terms of population, Pakistan also houses the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world. A decade down the line, Pakistan is likely to become the largest Muslim country, overtaking Indonesia. For the international world, “No other country in the world is more important with respect to nuclear arms control, nuclear proliferation and nuclear war,” notes Cohen in his book. 

An isolated and economically weak Pakistan poses a serious security threat to countries in the Asia Pacific, including Southeast Asia. For a country of such importance, there are hardly any think tanks or policy institutes addressing Pakistan studies in Southeast Asia. It is high time that ASEAN invests more on studying Pakistan and its relevance to the the region’s security and economy.

Pakistan may not be an attractive partner for ASEAN yet but it is certainly a state that requires greater attention.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15