Pakistan-Sri Lanka relations overview of 2020/2021

Major General Muhammad Saad Khattak

THE good will that exist between Pakistan and Sri Lanka is a litmus of the sustained hard work put in by our predecessors.

The irony however, has been that while the relationship was centered on Defence and Security diplomacy over years, it could not correspondingly expand to other equally important areas.

With the conclusive defeat of LTTE in 2009 coupled with global dynamics transiting from geo-politics to geo-economics, the priorities of successive Sri Lankan governments witnessed a shift focusing on the war shattered economy.

China was quick to respond to the call, much to the dislike of India and the West but the readily available Chinese cash and Sri Lankan immediate needs accelerated the engagement.

In the overall evolving scheme of things Pakistan could not compete in financial terms and had to re-focus its future priorities on expanding its trade and socio cultural engagements, using the available good will created through our effective Defence Diplomacy.

Despite that the FTA between the two countries was signed in 2005 and there had been a quantum jump in bilateral trade with balance in Pakistan’s favour, yet it remained much below our mutual capacities due to variety of challenges at both ends.

Sri Lanka’s new found geo strategic importance with the unleashing of Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) leading to massive investment and increasing interests of other players led by US and India thus turning to be a live threat hounding at our limited space in trade, defence and security engagement with Sri Lanka.

It is in this challenging environment that the Pakistan High Commission has to operate not only to defend its existing space and available good will but relentlessly continue struggling to broaden the base as much as possible endeavouring to take the relationship directly to the two people enhancing the stakes for every successive government.

With broad direction from the Foreign Office, it has been keeping these challenges in view that the High Commission formulated its plans to go about its diplomatic manoeuvre leading the other strands of our diplomacy to include trade, defence and socio cultural engagement with the host government and people.

First, as part of politico diplomatic effort the High Commissioner regularly reached out to the President, Prime Minister and other important ministers.

The efforts saw its fruition in the successful visit of Pakistan’s Prime Minister to Sri Lanka in February 2021 and a visit to Pakistan by the Sri Lankan Prime Minister in planning process for around November 2021.

The cremation issue of Muslims Covid 19 deaths was successfully addressed and Muslims allowed to bury their dead during our Prime Minister’s visit earning tremendous good will of the Muslim community.

Despite Covid 19 restrictions we reached out to the leadership of all strata across the country extending possible support and sharing our good will in the most challenging time.

We were also able to hold our National Day function that was widely attended by the Ministers, Officials and members of the Diplomatic Corps.

Second, in the domain of Public Diplomacy, we reached out to think tanks, universities, colleges, and Most Venerable Monks in their respective Temples.

As part of tangible efforts we donated computers, stationery items and sports gears to these institutions. We facilitated in signing of MOUs between our educational institutions.

We assisted the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan in holding tests for selection of students from across the country for scholarships in Pakistan as part of Allama Iqbal scholarship programme.

We persuaded the most important Monks across the country to undertake a visit to Pakistan and see our Buddhist heritage with their own eyes which was executed in April 2021 garnering extraordinary good will for Pakistan.

We have been able to make a state of the art Documentary on Buddhist heritage in Pakistan that will help promote Buddhist religious tourism from across the world.

Third, as part of our extensive trade diplomacy, the High Commission was able to thwart numerous attempts by the known spoilers to pressure the government for increasing variety of taxes on our exports, complicating custom clearances, banning certain exports from Pakistan and harassing local importers. The list is long and cannot be covered in an article.

A first of its kind trade and Investment conference was held as part of our Prime Minister’s visit which was chaired by the two Prime Ministers and attended by relevant ministries and prominent businessmen from the two countries.

B to B meetings ensued the conference with tangible commitments for further enhancing our trade volume in the future.

Besides, 12th session of Joint Economic Commission, 7th session of Commerce Secretary’s level talks, second meetings of Joint Working Groups on Trade, Investment, Auto Sector and Custom Clearances were facilitated by the High Commission.

Additionally, the High Commission was able to organize and facilitate numerous Webinars on relevant subjects assisting the two sides, simultaneously promoting our non traditional products like Dates etc to the Sri Lankan Market with tangible import orders received.

Four, tremendous potential exists in tourism, sports and cultural domains. The High Commission focused on the niche religious tourism, targeting the Most Venerable Monks who exercise great influence on the government and common people.

The Prime Minister of Pakistan donating Rs 52 Million for sports development in the Island and the High Commission’s regular donations of sports gear is a recognition of the extraordinary potential that exist in the field of sports to be expanded and exploited.

Five, in the field of Defence and Security, the bilateral cooperation is on high trajectory with the Prime Minister announcing another $ 50 Million Defence Credit Line during his recent visit after Sri Lanka successfully utilizing the first two of $20 Million and $50 Million each.

Over 10,000 Sri Lankan tri services personnel have so far undergone training in Pakistan with a yearly average of 600-650 personnel going to Pakistan for training while the cooperation continues with increasing intensity and numbers.

In the challenging environment of our bilateral relations, no amount of efforts can be termed sufficient. The efforts must continue relentlessly increasing the bar for every successive incumbent. Complacency and run of the mill steps and initiatives will not work here.

Pakistan’s efforts led by Foreign Office and its High Commission in Colombo will have to devote more time and resources than it does to this important country in the region.

This is not a choice but a compulsion if we want to be meaningfully counted in the future geo-political and geo-economics alignment fast evolving in the region and beyond.

—The writer’s Former High Commissioner of Pakistan to Sri Lanka and Chairman Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS) in an Islamabad based Think Tank.

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