ASIABUSINESSOPINION

Trade for geopolitical stability: Lessons for India and Pakistan

By Samarth Trigunayat

One of the most volatile zones today apart from the 38th parallel between the North-South Korea is the India-Pakistan border. With attacks and counter-attacks being reported almost every day, the threat of full-fledged war between the two largest nations in the South Asian region cannot be overlooked. Although last time both the countries were at war was in 1999 but the recent decision of the Indian Government on State of Jammu and Kashmir has increased tensions between the two countries. As a result of this rivalry, both the governments have been trying to feed their people with their own narratives and hence it becomes important to ascertain what can be the way out of the age-old conflict between the two nations. While India and Pakistan both are members of various international organizations like UN, WTO, IMF, etc. as well as regional organizations like SAARC, SCO, etc., none of these forums have ever come even an inch closer to resolution of the dispute between the two. Most recently with the decision of India to revoke Article 370, Pakistan has retaliated with the suspension of trade ties with India. The current bilateral trade between the two countries accounts for only a mere 2.1 bn $ and as it only forms 0.83% of total trade between the two countries hence both the countries have nothing to lose in the discourse. This article analyses how trade can ensure regional stability among two major players of the South Asian region.

While trade could have been a measure to ensure harmony between any conflicting nations, yet the first retaliatory measure that countries opt for is to cut off bilateral trade with each other in order to show their resentment over a policy. Although such instances have decreased in number since the formation of World Trade Organization (WTO), yet they cannot be altogether ruled out. At this stage, it is equally important to understand that since the formation of WTO, the world has not seen major wars as it was understood in its traditional meaning as a war between nations. One can equally not neglect the rise of belligerency and insurgency often supported by foreign institutions. Still, one of the credits that cannot be taken away from WTO is that it has ensured that the countries which have higher volume of bilateral trade often prefer peace over war, despite the odds. This claim is not without merit. History is a great educator. A brief comparison before the formation of General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and after the formation of GATT would prove it. The GATT was negotiated between countries in 1948. It was one of the founding pillars on which our modern-day WTO is based. The countries came to an agreement where they fixed a range for tariffs or bound rate beyond which the tariffs cannot be imposed on import of goods.

This mechanism ensures certainty in tariff rates which prevents the countries to turn into protectionist regimes. It would not be wrong to say that the first idea of globalization pursued by international community was not freedom of movement of people but the freedom of movement of goods and services. Prior to GATT, during the early 1930s, also known as the period of the Great Depression, lack of such an affirmation in form of GATT and the consequent fear that imports would throw more people out of work led governments to raise their trade barriers, thus creating a vicious cycle of retaliation. As a result, the world economy shattered, eventually contributing to the outbreak of World War II. Such a protectionist approach with no such affirmation as we find in GATT can easily lead us to a situation where everyone loses. However, a deeper analysis in the post-World War II period would establish that the recovery of Western European nations from the aftermath of the war was much quicker as compared to the Eastern European nations. The effect was such that most of the western European nations today are part of a customs union with free movement of goods as well as of people. Even the Soviet Union (USSR), which opposed the idea of market economy before its disintegration showed interest in becoming a member of GATT in 1986. Several letters and correspondence between GATT members and USSR prove this point. Much later after its disintegration, during 2000s most of the newly formed nations acceded to the GATT with Russia ultimately joining the WTO in 2008. What was realised much later in form of European Union (EU) found its place in the writings of French Philosopher Montesquieu and Italian Economist Pareto. Montesquieu, in 1748, quoted, peace is a natural effect of commerce. Pareto argued in 1889 that customs union can help to achieve peace between European nations.

None of these claims have been proven wrong. Since the formation of EU, none of the surveys have ever claimed of Europe being the centre for next major war between nations. It can be equally argued that this has been made possible because now the focus of nations has shifted from acquiring territories to improving their respective economies. Yet, the importance of economics behind a war cannot be totally neglected. Going by the report of UNICEF conducted by M Humphreys of Harvard University in 2003 came to a similar conclusion stating, countries which trade with each other are less likely to fight each other. He illustrates his argument with how most of the leftist scholars have yet not come out of the mercantilism hangover as the modern trade regime is not based on mercantilism which believed that imports per se are bad for any country. Another recent example can be seen in the shiftthat UNDP’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have brought in contrast to Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The interlinkage between the idea of development and conflict which was missing in MDGs find their place, and rightly so, in the SDGs. Even the ASEAN which today has become a successful economic bloc was formed with the intention of stopping the spread of communist ideas in the region. Since 1990s the organization has remained an important voice in nearly all the economic platforms.

Even scholars from all around the world have supported similar idea. Daniel Griswold, examined the idea that whether free and open markets promote human rights and democracy. He observed, “Economic liberalization provides a counterweight to governmental power and creates space for civil society. The faster growth and greater wealth that accompany trade promote democracy by creating an economically independent and political aware middle class. A sizeable middle class means that more citizens can afford to be educated and take an interest in public affairs. They can afford cell phones, Internet access, and satellite TV. As citizens acquire assets and establish businesses and careers in the private sector, they prefer the continuity and evolutionary reform of a democratic system to the sharp turns and occasional revolutions of more authoritarian systems. People who are allowed to successfully manage their daily economic lives in a relatively free market come to expect and demand more freedom in the political and social realm.”

Turning to the question in context, i.e. South Asia, especially India and Pakistan, this is probably not the first time that someone has come up with the idea of trade as a means to ensure peace and stability in the region. In one of his recent articles, Dr. Ranjan, Professor at South Asian University, arguesThe people of South Asia surely deserve a prosperous and a peaceful future.  The onus is on the leadership of the two biggest countries in the region to deliver. While solving difficult political questions will undoubtedly take time, it won’t be a bad idea to start working towards creating an atmosphere where even difficult questions can be resolved. Increasing bilateral trade can be one such step towards creating such a positive atmosphere.

In a study published by Woodrow Wilson International Centre, “trade relation between India and Pakistan have often blossomed even while political relations wilted. In 1948–49, 56 percent of Pakistan’s exports were sent to India. For the next several years—a period of tense political relations—India was Pakistan’s largest trading partner. Between 1947 and 1965, the two nations entered into 14 bilateral agreements related to trade facilitation.”

Source: Bloomberg (Quint)

In a recent report by World Bank, the potential of trade between the two nations is a whooping 37 bn $. However, in reality it is at 2.4 bn $ which is insignificant for both the countries. The informal trade between the countries stands much higher at 4 bn $, which is routed through UAE. With regards to the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) clause, India granted MFN to Pakistan in 1996 and withdrew it post Pulwama attacks in 2019. Pakistan has yet not reciprocated the same. It is however quite strange that none of the successive governments in India has ever brought the issue to the WTO against Pakistan’s non-compliance of MFN obligations. Even under the regional trade arrangements like South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), Pakistan maintains a negative list of over 1200 products which it doesn’t import from India. Apart from these tariff measures there are other non-tariff reasons such as port restrictions prevailing between both the countries which further narrows down the scope of increased trade. The other logistical reasons include the transport restrictions through Wagah Border, where none of the transport vehicles are allowed to move out of the border zone and have to unload their cargo.

The condition worsened post article 370 amendment, when Pakistan decided to suspend all trade ties with India. Although none of the decisions taken by either of the governments ever impacted their respective economies, yet retaliatory measures undertaken by both the countries with respect to not granting or withdrawal of MFN or even suspension of trade cannot be justified if brought before the dispute settlement body of WTO. A measure which goes against the principles enunciated under the WTO agreements is only allowed in cases when they either fall under the category of General Exceptions or National Security Exception. However, a prima facie observation of all the measures ever undertaken by either of the governments shows that none of these qualify either under the general exceptions or national security exception.

The problems pertaining to the conflict between the two nations is not merely political but also dependent upon the perception of ordinary people. Recent survey by Pew Research Centre found that 76 percent of Indians viewed Pakistan as a serious threat and 61 percent of Pakistanis viewed India as a threat, more than 55 percent who viewed Taliban as a threat. Another survey by Pulse Consultant in 2017 found 95 percent of Pakistanis designating India as the worst enemy. This narrative has further been deepened by the media houses in both the countries who often during debates promote the hatred. This public perception depends a lot on the population and what narrative they read and follow. As the median population in both these countries is around 24-28, most of them have not witnessed the horrific impact of either the 1965 war or the 1971 war between the two nations. To change this perception, free trade can be one of the ways. With freer trade in place, it is not only the products which cross borders, but also the ideas and other forms of expressions in form of magazines, news etc. It might not be as effective as educating and spreading awareness among people, yet when the political class of both the countries is occupied with bashing each other at international forums, this can be a good start.

Overall, with such a trade potential between the two nations it is imperative for the governments of both the countries to ensure that their trade policy should be separated from other policies. One suggested method as Raj Bhala, a trade expert, explains can be in form of use of clause 11 of Article XXIV of GATT which deals with the concept of regional trading arrangements. As prior to partition, the entire Indian subcontinent was seen as a single customs territory, the clause provides that the provisions of this Agreement shall not prevent the two countries from entering into special arrangements with respect to the trade between them, pending the establishment of their mutual trade relations on a definitive basis. As it is quite clear from the text of the provision, if India and Pakistan make use of this provision grant of any bilateral preferences between them will not be considered as a violation of any principle of WTO. Unfortunately, as Dr. Ranjan remarks, this has become a forgotten rule.

The countries can ensure better trading network by removing impediments to trade such as trade infrastructure and logistics, changes in their visa policy, easing cross border financial transactions etc. As Zareen F Naqvi, Director of Institutional Research at University of Fraser Valley, Canada, argues in his article, “both India and Pakistan need to tackle their restrictive visa regimes. A number of issues related to trade infrastructure and logistics can be done unilaterally such as the initiation of Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), more efficient customs processing at land border crossings, setting up or upgrading and warehousing, testing and security facilities, and setting up bank branches to ease financial transactions on both sides of the border.

As already proven above through various researches and surveys, trade has the potential to provide political stability to any volatile region. With continuous threat of full-fledged war lurking on both the nations, economic development cannot be ensured as most of the times these countries tend to focus on their military needs. Human development in both these countries still remains low on the HDI index. Today, the future of around 2 billion people in the world rests on few politicians in both these countries. The improvement in standards of living, poverty, employment, etc. rest a lot on the political willingness of the countries. It is the need of the hour to ensure that the two nuclear capable countries should not involve in a full-fledged war with each other as it would lead to a major catastrophe. The economic development of Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan do show us a path which follows the same narrative of freer trade between nations. Both these nations have to realise that trade ensures the active involvement of manufactures involved in export, civil societies and middle class in foreign relations. Once that is achieved, it would not be easy for any government to go for a fur fledged war as it is peace which ensures that the interests of these sections of the society are preserved.

Samarth Trigunayat is an LLM Graduate from South Asian University (SAU), New Delhi, India. SAU was established by the SAARC member states to improve cooperation between the countries in South Asian region by means of education. He currently works as Assistant Professor (Law) at Faculty of Law, Shree Guru Gobind Singh Tricentenary University, Gurugram, India. Samarth’s areas of interest include International Trade Law, International Investment Law, Feminist Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law.

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