The government postponed the decision on the grant of MFN status to India before Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif left for The Hague last week to attend the Nuclear Security Summit. According to him, the decision was taken because of lack of consensus amongst the various stakeholders. The other reason for the postponement was the forthcoming elections in India. The government apparently did not want to favour one party before the Indian elections. These are cogent reasons and therefore the decision must be welcomed as being in Pakistan’s best national interests. The lack of consensus to which the Prime Minister referred was most probably due to unstated strategic and economic factors.

Undoubtedly there is a strategic imperative of peace between Pakistan and India because of their de facto status as nuclear-weapon states and the need to eradicate widespread poverty in both. An all-out war between them is now unthinkable not only because of the unacceptable destruction that it would cause but also because it would degrade their economies and poverty further. Pakistan and India’s common interest is peace. However, this does not mean that all the ingredients of friendship between them are available. For this purpose, some other conditions must also be fulfilled.

The most important of these conditions is the compatibility of the strategic interests of the two countries. Unfortunately, we see basic incompatibility of their strategic interests. The most important strategic objective of India’s regional strategy is to establish its hegemony in South Asia. As noted, Indian analyst, C. Raja Mohan, has pointed out that India has sought primacy and a veto over the actions of outside powers in South Asia. (India and the Balance of Power, the Foreign Affairs, July-August, 2006). The reputable American scholar, Zbigniew Brzezinski, notes in his latest book “Strategic Vision—America and the Crisis of Global Power” that “Indian strategists speak openly of a greater India exercising a dominant position in area ranging from Iran to Thailand. India is also positioning itself to control the Indian Ocean militarily; its naval and air power programs clearly point in that direction—-as do politically guided efforts to establish for India’s strong positions, with geostrategic implications, in adjoining Bangladesh and Burma.”

Pakistan is unlikely to accept Indian hegemony in South Asia. Such an acceptance would ultimately mean that decisions about Pakistan’s destiny would be made in New Delhi rather than in Islamabad. Pakistan’s rejection of Indian hegemony in South Asia implies constant tensions and frictions in relations between the two countries, and even the risk of limited armed conflicts below the nuclear threshold. Obviously, such a situation would not be conducive to the establishment of genuine friendship between Pakistan and India. Additional strategic factors which militate against genuine friendship between the two countries are India’s emerging rivalry with China, its efforts to outflank Pakistan in Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia, and the existence of serious disputes like Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, and the sharing of river waters. It is also a reality that despite some superficial commonalities, there is a deep cultural divide between Pakistan and India.

It is against the background of this strategic scenario that Pakistan must assess the pros and cons of any proposal to develop relations and cooperation with India. Generally speaking, mutually beneficial cooperation in economic, commercial, technical, and cultural fields can help in the establishment of friendly linkages between different countries. However, we have to be careful in the application of this principle in the case of Pakistan and India because of their peculiar strategic environment. We must carefully examine each proposal for bilateral economic, commercial, and cultural cooperation to understand its short-term and long-term consequences for Pakistan’s political stability, economic progress and well-being, separate cultural identity and way of life, and our autonomy to take decisions in political, economic and cultural fields.

It is important to remember that since India is no longer in a position to inflict a crushing military defeat on Pakistan because of our nuclear deterrent, it is likely to focus on political, economic, and cultural means to overcome Islamabad’s opposition to its hegemonic designs in South Asia. Therefore, Pakistan must reject any proposal which affects it adversely. For instance, if Pakistan makes the mistake of joining India in a South Asian Economic Union as India has been advocating, Pakistan’s economy would in due course become merely an appendage of the Indian economy and consequently, decisions about our economy would be taken in New Delhi rather than in Islamabad. Once that happens, it would not be too long before decisions about Pakistan’s politics and security are also taken under the influence of New Delhi because of the close link of economic issues with political and security issues. Pakistan would thus be reduced to the status of India’s satellite, fulfilling India’s real strategic objective in South Asia.

India has started acting as if it is already the regional hegemon with the ability to impose its views on regional countries including Pakistan. For instance, Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh in a briefing with a group of Pakistani journalists in New Delhi on 31st January of this year, stated bluntly that for the time being India simply wanted MFN status and the punishment of those responsible for the Mumbai attacks of November, 2008. She ruled out resumption of the composite dialogue with “the shadow of terrorism roaming over our heads.” Thus, India is willing to engage in cooperation with Pakistan on issues of interest to it. But it refuses to engage in a dialogue with Pakistan on those issues in which we are interested like Kashmir, Siachen, etc. This one-sided approach reflects the mind-set of a regional hegemon. Our willingness to acquiesce into one-sided Indian demands will merely whet its appetite for more leading, ultimately to an untenable situation for Pakistan.

In view of the foregoing, Pakistan should not be in any hurry to grant MFN status to India. We should carefully examine the short-term and long-term consequences of this proposal for the growth and health of Pakistan’s economy and its various sectors on the basis of detailed studies by economic experts. At a meeting some time ago, I was shocked to learn from a senior official of our Ministry of Commerce that no such studies had been commissioned by it before reaching the decision to grant MFN status to India. Trade with India must be mutually beneficial and on a level playing field taking into account Indian non-tariff barriers. The views of various stakeholders in the public and private sectors should be given due consideration by our decision makers.

Above all, we must keep in view the over-all strategic environment in South Asia and security implications while taking a decision on the MFN issue or other important proposals relating to Pakistan-India economic relations such as the proposed purchase of electricity from India. It is a welcome sign that despite the indecent haste which was being shown by our Ministry of Commerce, wiser counsel has prevailed allowing us to take a decision on the MFN issue in a more deliberate fashion after the Indian elections.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.