INVISIBILITY is visible. Pakistan’s foreign policy envisions ‘looking east’ while it overlooks east. It has spun unseen on eastern horizons as the world’s largest trade partnership, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) has risen, having China, Pakistan’s all-weather strategic partner, amongst the principal stakeholders. Strolling in isolated trails, what Pakistan gains or loses abstaining from RCEP – in politically, economically and diplomatically? What blurred (or sharpened) its sight off from the biggest international economic bloc of history? Now, which way Pakistan should turn and walk to avert lagging? Sadly, Pakistani yogis are floating in some nirvanas.
On 15 November 2020, RCEP emerged integrating 15 nations of all levels of socio-economic looks: 5 Asians and 10 members of Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand from Asia joined ASEAN states – Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. The biggest trading bloc in history, bigger than European Union and Canada-Mexico-US troika, circumvents $26 trillion GDP, one-third of the world’s economy. This Asia-Pacific constellation houses 2.3 billion of the world’s human capital, one-third of humankind. Pakistan excluded.
RCEP aims for a modern, comprehensive and mutual economic partnership to facilitate expansion of regional trade and investment while blooming global economic growth and development. The gigantic outlook of RCEP targets larger and broader trade integration, tariffs rationalization, liberalization, larger, convenient and faster market access and an array of developmental and growth vistas for members. This futuristic partnership seeks growth in e-commerce, entrepreneurialism, Intellectual property enforcement, capacity building; and, above all, colossal employment prospects. As economies of Asian and Southeast Asian nations are exponentially expanding, these proffer enormous integration and collaboration in the region, amongst partners. Yes! Amongst the partners only. Not for the invisibles.
Today, every aspect of state functioning is viewed through geo-politics: from soft-looking culture to hardcore military; from outside-in environment to inside-out diplomacy. All facets of a nation-state affect its all-inclusive national security. Geo-economics essentially does! Peeping through an economist’s prism, trade tariffs between RCEP members incline to decline further as their mutual trade as ASEAN members is already comparatively liberalized. This partnership would further boost trade and lower-cost regional and global ventures and investment within RCEP. Soothing ripples of intra-region administrative time, hiccups and expenses of sourcing inputs would be further curtailed, making RCEP countries cost-effective and competitive. Pakistan deprived it from all of it. It has to compete exhaustively for trading with RCEP members and if RCEP trading with Pakistan’s international trading partners.
Foundation of the RCEP shall unsurprisingly cast its momentous economic sway, but how does RCEP translate in geopolitical terms? In fragile international order and growing trade nationalism, successful formation of a grandlateral trading giant is an accomplishment itself. For sure, RCEP further fanfares China’s increasing influence in Asia-Pacific. RCEP appears to US countering its strategic pivot to Asia and competing pro-US Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP, formerly TPP), Donald Trump’s left in 2017. Though President Joe Biden seems less pressing to restore his Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), it seems that the US would resurrect CPTPP. States in the US bloc desire it, such as Australia and Japan that are balancing Chinese weight in Asia-Pacific. Pleasing enough, China voiced its openness to join pro-US CPTPP.
Purely in the geopolitical context of Pakistan, RCEP could be a significant platform to broaden and strengthen its economic and diplomatic muscles within RCEP as Pakistan wrestles with its domestic and international challenges. COVID-19 further adds to misery. Therefore, joining RCEP seeking Asia self-dependency, inter-dependency, could prevent Pakistan relying on the West and US, reaping politico-economic bounties.
India, despite being part of formative negotiations of the RCEP, withdrew itself to join the forum due to the Indo-China rivalry factor given their current politico-military row over northern borders. In the context of Indo-Pakistan dubious relationship, Pakistan could disposition it aptly to leverage itself for its geo-economic feats and geo-political influence within the RCEP forum. Being strategically hands-in-glove with China, Pakistan could creep forward towards its economic and political national interests, with the same non-zero-sum approach it is pursuing in the contemporary geopolitical milieu. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is already a binding socio-economic development project that strongly binds China and Pakistan. RCEP would have cemented it further. Since RCEP could offer a platform to pursue faith (religion) diplomacy with the member Muslim countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam.
Propagating the Muslim unity and sweeping international support for Kashmir and Palestine issues in Asia-Pacific could have been manifested in the sidelines of the economic ventures. Additionally, in terms of defence cooperation, Pakistan could have further opportunities to promote its defence export and assert itself through military and maritime diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region. Most of the ASEAN nations and member states of RCEP are maritime nations, so being a member, Pakistan could bolster its maritime collaboration with these nations. In a nutshell, RCEP was and still is a grand politico-strategic and economic opening, yet not lost.
Lot of ‘could-haves and have-nots’ argued above reflect that Pakistan can still take advantage of RCEP in political, economic and diplomatic dimensions. Given the existing focus of Pakistan to improve its trade deficit and improve its economic statistics in its COVID-bruised economy, Pakistan ought to disposition itself to participate more profoundly and broadly with regional bilateral and multilateral initiatives. Such productive engagements would essentially fetch politico-diplomatic strategic leverages for Pakistan.
Pakistan should breathe its foreign policy vision. Looking east or west, Pakistan should be visible, deeply engaged in walking with growing nations. Its yogis are to be out of nirvanas, and must walk on paths of development, turning from isolated trails. A steady, ambitious and robust stride of Pakistan in RCEP will pave way for its further economic and geopolitical integration in the Asian and East Asian regions promoting its socio-economic prosperity and national security. Not joining RCEP are spilled beans, not spilt milk. Live the vision of connecting, foregoing undecided isolationism. Time to ponder…!
—The writer, a national security professional, writes on national security, foreign policy, international diplomacy and maritime affairs.