Hina Rabbani Khar MP – Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pakistan

I was privileged, at the recent South Asia Economic Summit, to hear Hina Rabbani Khar, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, an extremely attractive young lady of what seemed enormous intelligence. She was quite definite in her commitment to greater regional cooperation, and in particular to improving trade and connectivity, in particular with India.

I was reminded then of reports of the visit of the Indian Foreign Minister to Islamabad. Mr Krishna is an old man, but also very wise, and very kindly it seemed, in the meeting we had with him last year, when a Parliamentary delegation visited India. I could imagine he and his Pakistani counterpart had got on very well, given the combination of charm and intelligence that both evince – which sadly we in Sri Lanka have not yet understood have to go together, thinking one or the other enough, with disastrous consequences.

Hina Rabbani forcefully made the point that all major parties in Pakistan understood the need for good relations with their neighbours and in particular India. Peace within, she noted, would only come when there was peace outside. Given the abuse of the Pakistani people by interest groups, both internal and external, pursuing their own selfish agendas, abuse that sadly many Pakistanis promoted given their own political predilections, it was a relief to feel that current policy was based on promoting common interests.

Practically every speaker at the Summit noted the need to develop connections. Intra-regional trade amongst SAARC countries was much less than in other regional groupings. Transport links were practically non-existent, as we heard from the horror stories of the Nepalese who had to fly to Doha to get from Kathmandu to Islamabad. We have no common policies with regard to migrant labour, so that workers from the region are amongst the lowest paid in the world.

In a context then in which India and Pakistan seem to be moving closer together, at least as far as economic links go, it seems a shame that our own moves in this regard have been stuck for ages. CEPA, which was on the verge of finalization some years back, has been put on the back burner because of strong objections from a few entrepreneurs who felt they had been disadvantaged by the Free Trade Agreement.

Looking into the case, as I had been asked to do at the time, I felt there was reason for the anger, but this was nothing to do with the Agreement, it was rather that some bureaucrats in India had interpreted it and other provisions unfairly. We do of course have a problem in that the Centre in India and the States can adopt different approaches, but this can be solved by better dispute resolution mechanisms – for which of course we must train our own bureaucrats better, since some of them have a tendency to give in, when faced with the determination of their counterparts in other countries.

That however is a general point, and we should not clamp down our shutters simply because we feel our public servants cannot put our case forcefully. After all, we fall prey to such unfair determinations with regard to other countries, so it seems simply prejudice that keeps us from trying to reach a more comprehensive agreement with India. Certainly the promotion of trade and commerce will go a long way towards ensuring better understanding on all sides.