Regional cooperation agenda must be kept separate from bilateral relations
March 22, 2020 10:19 AM NPT
Photo: Keshab Raj Thoker/Republica
Nepal and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations this year. Ever since the establishment of the diplomatic relations, the two countries have enjoyed cordial relation based on goodwill, mutual cooperation, and friendship. A Foreign Secretary level bilateral consultation mechanism has been established to review the bilateral relations comprehensively and increase cooperation between the two countries in different fields. A fourth round of bilateral consultations between the two countries was held in Islamabad last month to take stock of the bilateral relations and take new measures to scale up the cooperation. With the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) across the world including in the South Asia, the need of cooperation among the countries in the region has been felt more than ever. Against this backdrop, Republica talked to Ambassador of Pakistan to Nepal Dr Mazhar Javed on a range of bilateral and multilateral issues. Excerpts:
How do you look back to 60 years of bilateral relations between Nepal and Pakistan? What are some of the significant developments of the past 60 years?
The year 2020 is an important year in Pakistan-Nepal relations as it marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of our diplomatic relations on March 20, 1960. It is an opportune time to look back to the past and figure our way forward. A lot has been planned to celebrate these relations. Everything is put on hold because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Bilateral relations between Pakistan and Nepal have been a story of seamless friendship and cooperation which finds its roots in people-to-people friendship and political goodwill, of which there was never a dearth. The first high level visit in 1960 was that of President Ayub Khan at the invitation of King Mahendra. All along since then, the level of cooperation and mutual understanding has remained on an upward course, bringing people of the two countries closer. We now have alumni of thousands of Nepali brothers and sisters who studied or were trained in Pakistan. They are a strong bridge between the two countries and an asset for Pakistan-Nepal relations.
There are several mechanisms and agreements in different areas which are operational now for decades; many other proposals are under consideration or in the pipeline. High-level bilateral visits have picked up in recent years and are strengthening these relations. Pakistan and Nepal have always stood with each other in times of calamities and natural disasters. I recall the pain with which the people of Pakistan received and followed the news of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.
Today we have substantive cooperation in almost all fields--political relations, education, health, culture and sports, trade and people-to-people contacts. Foreign secretary level bilateral political consultations held last month reviewed the entire ambit of these relations and took several new initiatives to scale them up. The political will to further mutual cooperation exists and that is important.
But if you ask me if our level of cooperation in different areas is commensurate with the potential of our relations, my answer would be ‘no’. Pakistan-Nepal relations have much work to be done before we can fully exploit all the available opportunities, and before these relations can match the goodwill that exists. Looking back to the past 60 years of diplomatic relations is not possible without using the prism of millennia of shared history and culture. What we are celebrating in 2020 is the 60th anniversary of ‘formal diplomatic relations’ between the two countries; historical links and shared culture are thousands of years old.
What are some of the agendas in which Nepal and Pakistan have stood together?
Pakistan and Nepal are two important regional countries. Both the countries have always looked at the relationship in a positive perceptive and endeavored to build a better world. A world where our future generations can live in peace, cooperation and prosperity. This shared vision brings the two countries and their wish lists closer.
Pakistan and Nepal are also important SAARC members and have worked together on many regional initiatives. They share the vision of regional cooperation and integration. The two countries have been frequently supporting each other at the UN and other international fora, including at the UN Human Rights Council with their valuable contributions.
The two countries have always stood together in times of natural disasters, whether they were earthquakes or floods. Then climate change is another area where we face similar environments and hence similar challenges. The two countries can benefit from each others’ experience and enhance their cooperation in fighting environmental challenges. There are many areas where the two countries have similar agendas and aspirations.
You talked about the common challenges related to climate. This has been one of the most pressing issues for Himalayan countries like Nepal and Pakistan. How can these two countries work to mitigate the climate risks?
Both the countries share similar topography. Both are Himalayan nations and have mountainous, hilly and plain terrains; and also part of the same region. The two countries have already been cooperating in various areas, though this cooperation needs to be deepened.
Environmental challenges are of global nature. In that context, Nepal government’s initiative of a global dialogue, Sagarmatha Sambad, would be very helpful in leadership-level discussions at a global level. The theme of its first edition is “Climate Change, Mountains, and the Future of Humanity”. This event was to be held in early April but the coronavirus outbreak did not permit its convening as scheduled. But once it is held, it will provide a very useful platform to the world leaders to share their thoughts and experiences on the environmental challenges faced by our region and ways to deal with it.
Problems in Indo-Pak relations are often cited as a hurdle in smooth functioning of SAARC. In your view, why has not the SAARC process moved forward despite all member countries agreeing that it must be kept vibrant?
Regional cooperation and integration has always remained an important prerequisite of economic development; and that is more so in today’s world which is often called a global village. That is what all the success stories of regional integration tell us; the European Union and ASEAN being two glaring examples.
SAARC is the vehicle of regional cooperation and integration in our region which is home to one fifth of the entire humanity. Ours is one of the least integrated regions in the world and also houses the largest chunk of people living below the poverty line. That being the situation, the importance of reactivating and strengthening SAARC needs no elaboration. Unfortunately the regional cooperation under SAARC was mixed with bilateral relations and an unhelpful blame game. The 19th SAARC Summit that was to be held in Pakistan in 2016 could not be held because of that.
Regional cooperation agenda must be kept separate from bilateral relations. That was precisely the approach followed by both, the EU and the ASEAN, before they could become success stories and models for the contemporary world. Both succeeded despite differences among their member states. The approach adopted was simple: not to make regional cooperation dependent on bilateral problems.
The SAARC process needs to be reactivated. We need to pick threads from where we left them in 2016. The 19th SAARC Summit in Pakistan would revitalize this important platform and strengthen the regional cooperation for the betterment of the people in the region.
What should be done to increase trade between the two countries?
Trade between the two countries has traditionally remained much lower than what one would expect given the warmth of political relations and the strength of people-to-people bonds. However, manifold jumps to NRs 63 billion of trade in 2017/18 showed that the potential of increased trade does exist. And I can tell you it exists in many areas. To exploit that potential, we need to increase business-to-business contacts so that the entrepreneurs of the two countries can explore each other’s markets and the business opportunities therein.
I would greatly encourage Nepali businessmen to organize a single country exhibition in Pakistan on the pattern of “Made in Pakistan Exhibition” organized by Pakistan in Nepal every year. I can assure them of all cooperation and support for any such initiative. Also, I urge the businessmen from the two countries to showcase more of their products in each others’ trade fairs and exhibitions. Our trade and economic relations can be catalyzed by an early convening of meetings of Joint Economic Commission Meeting and Joint Business Council. Currently both are on hold due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I am fully aware of the difficulties in bilateral trade posed by the absence of direct flights. There is a need to look into the possibility of resuming these flights, and till such a time, we need to redouble our efforts. Lowering ambitions is not an option.
What can Nepal do to promote tourism between Pakistan and Nepal?
Tourism is an important area that we need to work on. It pays huge dividends not only in economic terms but, importantly also in creating public awareness and understanding of each others’ culture. There exists a huge potential to enhance tourism between the two countries. There are strong historical linkages which the general public is not well aware of. Once that awareness is raised, I am sure it will encourage many people to explore this shared history and cultural values. I have no hesitation in admitting that I did not know much about these linkages when I first landed in Nepal.
There exists an agreement and a Joint Working Group on Tourism. That provides a robust framework to promote tourism. There is a need to raise awareness about the tourist attractions in each others’ countries. In that the media of the two countries has an important role to play. Two things can help promote tourism: one direct flight and two, interactions between the tour operators in the two countries. We need to work in these two areas.
What are some of the memorable events of your Ambassadorship so far here in Nepal?
I will recount two events that I can never forget. These experiences changed my view of international relations. First one relates to the recent 13th SAF Games in Kathmandu. In all competitions that I saw, Nepali crowds were supporting Pakistani teams, many of them by waving huge Pakistani flags. Every time I saw that, trust me it brought tears to my eyes. Those scenes taught me more of international relations than all the books on diplomacy did. The lesson was simple, one must never underestimate the importance of public sentiments and emotional bonds.
The other unforgettable memory relates to the music concert by Pakistani singer Sara Raza Khan in 2018 on Pakistan National Day reception. A thirty-second long round of applause on her opening lyrics, “Gajaluti thula thula aankha” was a sight to remember. To Nepali audience, perhaps it was rekindling of the old memories when Ustad Ghulam Ali visited Nepal and sang King Mahendra’s ghazal with Narayan Gopal’s melodious tunes. Nothing gives a diplomat a bigger sense of achievement than bringing to the fore, the otherwise invisible sentiments that bind the hearts of people. My strong desire to organize a similar music evening on Pakistan National Day this year could not materialize due to coronavirus outbreak. I regret missing the opportunity.
Cricket is a common thread that can bring together the people of two countries? Any possibility of Pakistani cricket team visiting Nepal?
Yes. That is my desire and I am sure our Nepali friends would also wish that. In recent times, sports have become an important vehicle of developing people-to-people interactions. Exchange of visits by cricket teams would attract a lot of interest among the youth. One indicator of that interest is the ever increasing popularity of the Pakistan T-20 Cricket tournament that the Embassy organizes every year. This year is particularly an opportune time for the teams’ visits. This year being the 60th anniversary of Pakistan-Nepal diplomatic relations is the time to renew and showcase our friendship.
A number of activities related to the 60th anniversary have been held up because of the coronavirus outbreak. Once this threat subsides, we will organize the visits of the cricket teams. And this should not just be a solitary event. It must be a part of a broader program to increase youth interactions. Sports organizations in the two countries should come close and work for regular interactions and exchanges.
Which are the areas Nepal and Pakistan can work together in the days to come? What should be our vision for the future of these relations?
Between countries with mutual goodwill and shared vision of peace, prosperity and cooperation, there is never a dearth of fertile areas for enhancing mutually beneficial cooperation; the need to do so is even more, if they share common challenges of poverty, sustainable development and environment.
There should be more high-level bilateral visits to give impetus to various initiatives. Trade must be increased through greater interaction between entrepreneurs and businessmen. Tourist attractions of one country need to be promoted in the other, especially the religious sites and archeological places. Avenues of health tourism need to be explored. To accomplish that, cooperation among media of the two countries is extremely important. Greater exchange of journalists and linkages among media is a catalyzer that works magic.
The existing bilateral mechanisms should be made full use of. Foreign secretaries of the two countries discussed the entire ambit of bilateral relations, reviewing the progress of projects and identifying new initiatives.
Pakistan and Nepal can further expand their cooperation in the field of education. I urge Nepali youth to make use of the educational opportunities available in Pakistan especially in the field of medical education and postgraduate training. At governmental level, this cooperation could translate into linkages and cooperation between the higher education institutions of the two countries. This could take the shape of student exchange and collaboration in research, academia and curricula. Similar institutional arrangements must also exist among the media organizations.
The basic ingredients for taking Pakistan-Nepal relations to new heights already exist; they not only exist, they abound. First, our relations are free of any irritants and are based on the principle of mutual respect. There is a strong political will to strengthen mutually beneficial cooperation. Another factor that I consider extremely important is the strong public-to-public positive sentiment. It is this factor that gives our ties a non-transactional nature. What makes these relations important are the common economic and environmental challenges. In the last 60 years of our diplomatic relations, a lot has been done; and a lot more remains to be done. We have to do that, and we will.