Imran Khan’s Historic Victory Should Pave The Way For an ASEAN-Pakistan Free Trade Agreement

Pakistan’s Prime Minister designate Imran Khan is coming into office with the wind of mass popular support behind his back and also the weight of history on his shoulders. Many of the major issues ranging from long term sustainable poverty relief, to improved education across Pakistan’s provinces and strengthening important foreign alliances while working to end hostilities with traditional adversaries, formed key elements of Imran Khan’s widely praised victory speech. But there was one important issue that Imran Khan did not specifically mention and this is the all important area of trade. New trade agreements with new partners will ultimately be of extreme importance to insuring Pakistan’s road to moderate prosperity.



ASEAN-Pakistan: A free trade agreement right for today and fit for the future 

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is among the most diverse, dynamic and economically growing geopolitical blocks in the world. As a free trading zone, ASEAN member states are able to trade more easily among each other while the collective weight of ASEAN allows the bloc to negotiate trade agreements with other major economies. At present, ASEAN has free trading agreements with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

A new ASEAN-Pakistan free trading agreement would not only allow Pakistan to export its own goods and raw materials to an ever diverse and expanding south east Asian market but most importantly, an ASEAN-Pakistan free trading agreement would pave the way for good future relations between a major south Asian nation and an ASEAN bloc whose economic fortunes will likely mutually accelerate over the next years and decades.

In this sense, while free trading agreements are often conducted between countries and blocs that have reached a critical mass in terms of development goals, in the age of win-win cooperation between nations and blocs of the wider developing world, it is becoming increasingly important for developing nations to aid one another by trading more freely even long before attaining goals of moderate domestic prosperity. This is the case because trading with mutually developing nations can help to accelerate economic growth and human development by allowing for the comparatively easy access of domestic producers to crucial foreign goods, services and raw materials that are essential for one’s own developmental needs.



Furthermore, such an atmosphere helps to bring the economies of various nations closer together in terms not only of service exchange but in terms of mutual exchanges in expertise. Thus, while the model of a major economic power helping a materially poorer partner to accelerate sustainable economic growth will continue to be a vital model across Asia, it remains the case that nations at more similar stages of their development can actually provide for one another in similar ways based on a win-win model of pooling the goods and human talents of economically growing nations in order to strengthen each side.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, when the major nations of ASEAN all become moderately prosperous societies (Singapore for example attained this status decades ago) and Pakistan moves closer to the same goal, there will already be a free trading agreement in place to ensure continued economic connectivity later in the 21st century when the ASEAN economies and Pakistan’s economy are likely to be vastly larger and more vibrant than they are today. By establishing contacts in the form of a free trading agreement today, it will ensure a more harmonious mutual growth pattern in the long term future for all parties to such an agreement.



The India factor

As party of New Delhi’s “act east” strategy, India has already secured a free trading agreement with ASEAN. While modern economies throughout the world look to embrace free trade versus protectionism on a non-ideological basis, India’s interests in south east Asia are motivated by a deeply zero-sum mentality in trying to cut China out of partnerships in the region. In Myanmar for example at the height of the conflict in the country’s Rakhine state, India appeared to be openly competing with China to see which country could be a more important partner of Naypyidaw at a time when the west began deserting Myanmar en masse.

While Indian Premier Narendra Modi conducted a well choreographed visit to Myanmar in 2017, it was ultimately a Chinese authored proposal to bring peace to Rakhine through cooperation between Myanmar and Bangladesh – one offered with hardly any fanfare or public warning, that has been able to gradually calm the situation which itself was an outgrowth of Myanmar’s long running civil conflict.

The significance of last year’s Sino-Indian “competition” for Myanmar is instructive to Pakistan on several levels. First of all, it demonstrated that while India has emulated America’s model of turning every peace agreement or bilateral agreement into a Hollywood/Bollywood spectacle, China prefers a more businesslike approach that focuses more on the results than on promoting the process.

Here, ironically, Pakistan could learn from its rival India in so far as many in ASEAN seem to look at China, Japan and India in terms of considering new trade deals to the north without considering other countries to the north of ASEAN including Russia, the central Asian republics and of course Pakistan.

In this sense, it would be to Pakistan’s supreme benefit to conduct an outreach programme with ASEAN that borrows some of the overt showmanship of India but with the ability to guarantee Chinese style businesslike results. One of the key elements of One Belt–One Road is that China can now offer the ASEAN countries to its south the ability to trade with western Eurasia, Africa and Europe owing to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which acts as the main artery connecting China’s Pacific coasts with Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea.



Complimenting China while introducing oneself to southern neighbours 

There is absolutely no reason why Pakistan cannot launch a campaign within ASEAN states to promote Gwadar and CPEC as a clear alternative to existing trade routes for ASEAN nations, including the often fraught Strait of Malacca. By promoting Pakistani products and services while welcoming ASEAN products to Pakistan’s markets, CPEC could be transformed from a project rarely discussed in the ASEAN press to one that becomes a source of economic and geopolitical attraction for ASEAN states.

In this sense, China would clearly welcome its partner Pakistan in taking on the added responsibility of ensuring that CPEC reaches its maximum potential in the shortest amount of time. Furthermore, as a nation that received independence around the same time that many ASEAN nations broke free of British, French, Dutch and American rule, Pakistan can help China to counter the largely Indian and US narrative that because China was never formally colonised in totality, it somehow cannot relate to the countries that were fully colonised by European aggressors in the late modern period.

India has often spread propaganda in the region that because China became weakened by western and Japanese aggression in the 19th and 20th century but never became a colony, that somehow China is aggressive towards countries that only became independent in the middle of the 20th century. This devious narrative is automatically picked up by Sinosceptics in ASEAN, thus cutting ASEAN off from great potential partnerships.

As a country that has struggled to gain independence at a time when many ASEAN states began their anti-colonial struggles, Pakistan is well placed to challenge India’s Sinophobic post-colonial narrative while simultaneously reminding ASEAN that while India portrays itself in the ASEAN press as an innocent post colonial power that is geopolitically ‘at one with the people’, for millions of Kashmiris and their fraternal Pakistani friends, India is both a post colonial independent state and an aggressor. If Pakistan were able to show that there is more than one side to south Asia among ASEAN nations often cut-off from the realities of recent south Asian history, China would see that Pakistan is able of complimenting Beijing’s win-win strategy in ways not previously foreseen.



Sending both an economic and geopolitical message to the United States

One of the major themes of Imran Khan’s campaign was fierce criticism of the paralytic attitude that the old political elites of the country took to the United States. One of the reasons underscoring Imran Khan’s victory was the fact that he campaigned for Pakistan to develop a dignified, non-aligned and truly independent foreign policy that would be able to engage and appropriately react to the United States in ways other than subservience and confusion.

By taking the initiative in opening up trade with ASEAN, a bloc with as many if not more US partners as Chinese partners – Pakistan would be able to show the US that it should be treated more like Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, The Philippines or Cambodia than like Afghanistan. In all of the aforementioned ASEAN states, the US is openly competing with China for economic influence and in each case even among traditional US partners, there are strong cases being made in China’s long term economic favour. This has caused the US to inadvertently try harder to persuade ASEAN nations to see the US as an economic partner rather than a neo-colonial overlord — an image the US is trying to shake even while often enforcing this stereotype.

Even the DPRK is now being openly courted by the US, China and Russia simultaneously based on a unique outgrowth of the strategies that have long been used by the major Pacific powers in the ASEAN bloc. Pakistan needs to teach the United States a lesson in respect and recent trends show that only by taking the initiative to engage in economic relationships not reliant on the US, does Washington sit up, take notice and realise that zero-sum strategies will no longer work against a nation diversifying its geopolitical portfolio.




Pakistan has nothing to lose and potentially very much to gain by establishing a free trading relationship with ASEAN. In summary such an agreement can achieve the following:

–Accelerated development through a mutual partnership with a group of largely developing nations with rapidly growing economies

–Help create a cooperative atmosphere where mechanical, technological and research exchange can transpire on a win-win basis

–Set the stage for a long-term free trading area among nations on the road to moderate prosperity in the 21st century

–Help off-set India’s anti-China and de-facto anti-Pakistan strategy in the region

–Put Pakistan on the intellectual and economic map of ASEAN leaders who too often only see Japan, China and India as important northern neighbours

–Help to leverage US economic threats by showing a profound independent streak which includes partnerships with many US allies in Asia



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