HAVING missed an opportunity to advance opening trade with India, Pakistan now finds itself dealing with the consequences. The forthcoming talks between the foreign secretaries of the two countries could have been an opportunity to move further down the road of regional economic cooperation and integration, but instead they are going to spend their time testing the waters. Going by the words of Pakistan's foreign secretary, the talks will aim to “discuss the resumption of the dialogue process to improve bilateral ties and address all outstanding issues, including Kashmir.” More than a decade after the signing of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement by both countries, the latter should have advanced much further on the road to freer trade. Instead, they are simply seeking a “resumption of the dialogue process.” Three crucial years of this decade were lost in the wake of the Mumbai attacks when the talks were stalled. The decision to delay the grant of Non-Discriminatory Market Access status to India back in March was another lost opportunity and further delays will only embolden those segments of public opinion in India who believe Pakistan is not serious in pursuing closer trade ties with its neighbour.
Now that the deed is done, it is important the consequences be managed effectively to prevent any further delays. Greater effort should be made to come to the negotiating table with a consensus. This involves addressing concerns arising from India's sensitive list, to industry's fears of getting swamped by India's larger manufacturing prowess on account of its sheer size. But the process so far has not been free from the concerns of the Pakistani military that has had a powerful role in decisions concerning India. The moment is delicate, for sure, but it holds the promise of unlocking the potential outlined in the joint statement issued by the two countries at the conclusion of the fifth round of talks back in April 2011. That statement spoke of bilateral trade as a way to “build confidence, dispel misunderstandings and allay misapprehensions.” Since then, both countries have agreed to a detailed road map towards further liberalisation in the seventh round of the talks. New governments have been sworn in on both sides since that agreement, and it is imperative that both parties remain committed to the road map going forward. Pakistan should use the moment to signal its willingness to continue on the path to freer bilateral trade.
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