Friendly overtures

CHULANEE ATTANAYAKE and MOHAMMAD MASUDUR RAHMAN

SRI LANKA and Bangladesh are two neighbours of Pakistan with whom it shares common regional ties in terms of proximity and development journey. They have unleashed potential in economic, trade relations and people-to-people partnerships. Strengthening ties will be a template for the small South Asian countries to engage diplomatically with one another without being overshadowed by India. This essay explores the economic and people-to-people ties Pakistan can develop with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Pakistan’s relational journey with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh is distinctive. While its ties with Colombo have always remained cordial and friendly, its relations with Bangladesh began with hostility and remained thorny. However, Pakistan shares a strong cultural bond with both countries. Its relations with Sri Lanka dates back to the pre-Islamic era. Buddhism had flourished in areas that later became Pakistan. A historical narrative notes that Mohammad bin Qasim, the Arab military commander of the Umayyad Caliphate, who led the Muslim conquest of Sindh and Multan, came to Sindh in the 8th century to rescue widows of Arab settlers in Serendib (ancient Sri Lanka), making the advent of Islam in this region.1 During Pakistan’s struggle for a separate homeland during the colonial period, Sri Lankan Muslims supported it.2 Since then, traditions of goodwill between the two countries continued.

During Sri Lanka’s inde-pendence in 1948, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, sent his warmest goodwill to the country and noted in confidence that the two countries will remain good friends.3 Post-independent bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and Pakistan were marked by mutual understanding, including the forging of close diplomatic ties. Their mutual concern and fear vis-à-vis their big neighbour India have laid the foundation for a strong relationship.4 Despite not subscribing to a common border, a common culture or a common religion, Colombo and Islamabad are experiencing a growing and problem-free mutual relationship that does
not necessitate frequent meetings between their heads of governments.
5 

Relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan have been frosty since the liberation war in 1971. Pakistan never acknowledged or apologised for the horrific war crimes against about three million Bangladeshis. This was despite then Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto setting up the commission to examine the factors that led to Pakistan’s surrender in Dhaka on 16 December 1971. The report stayed classified for more than 30 years and Pakistan reluctantly acknowledged that crimes were committed by ‘some’ of the soldiers.

 

 

In July 2002, when then Prime Minister Parvez Musharraf visited Bangladesh, there was hope that the tensed relations between the two countries may be repaired. However, when Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed concern6 in a statement following the execution of a war criminal in 2013, Bangladeshi sentiments were deeply hurt. Consequently, Islamabad was forced to withdraw its High Commissioner and it expelled Bangladeshi diplomats from Pakistan in return. Pakistan’s parliament condemned and adopted a resolution against this war criminal trial which upset Bangladesh severely and dragged bilateral relations through the mud.

When Imran Khan came to power as Pakistan’s prime minister in 2018, a change was expected. In 2020, he attempted to normalise the relationship with Bangladesh. Khan made a phone call and sent an email to Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. In 2021, Khan wrote a letter to Hasina, congratulating her on the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s Independence and the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (the Father of the Nation). Hasina positively replied to Khan and tried to improve the bilateral relationship between the two countries. This friendly overture made by the two leaders showed a significant positive step toward improving bilateral relationships. However, Bangladesh has, over the years, been demanding an unconditional apology for the war crimes and misdeeds of Pakistani armed forces following the complete repatriation of stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh. However, Pakistan always remained adamant on its stand. This is a stumbling block in their relationship.

Sri Lanka, on the other hand, viewed Khan coming into power as an opportunity to strengthen their relationship further. When Khan visited Sri Lanka in 2021, he was given a grand ceremonial welcome and fanfare. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa held Pakistan in high esteem for its unwavering support to Sri Lanka during its fight against terrorism.7 After coming to power, Khan looked for opportunities to realise Pakistan’s economic potential as a trade, investment and tourism destination. For this purpose, it was important for Islamabad to look closely at its neighbourhood.

Sri Lanka and Pakistan have shared flourishing economic ties since the renewal of a long-term trade agreement signed in 1984 to diversify and strengthen bilateral trade. Sri Lanka became the first country to sign a free trade agreement (FTA) with Pakistan in 2005. The FTA provides 100 per cent duty concession on 206 commodities from Sri Lanka into Pakistan while Sri Lanka has waived duties on 102 items from Pakistan. With that, bilateral trade has increased by 27 per cent, making Pakistan Sri Lanka’s second-largest trade partner in South Asia. Bilateral trade, which was US$ 169 million in 2005 rose to US$ 345 million in 2021.8 According to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, Colombo’s imports from Pakistan in 2019 amounted to US$ 370 million and its exports were US$ 82 million. Although the financial value of bilateral trade appears to be minimal, the diplomatic significance of their economic ties indicates a continued desire and potential to further strengthen economic relations.

Sri Lanka and Pakistan see an opportunity to use the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to enhance their trade relationship. Especially for Sri Lanka, it is an opportunity to connect with the Central Asian region. However, given how the economic crisis is unfolding in both Sri Lanka and Pakistan, it is uncertain how the CPEC opportunity can be realised by the two countries. Both Pakistan and Sri Lanka are engulfed in a deep economic crisis resulting from long-term unsustainable economic practices and immediate exogenous shocks, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The rising debt, galloping inflation and devaluing of the local currency have led both Colombo and Islamabad to seek support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to address the crisis.

Pakistan managed to secure an extended term of US$ 3 billion loan from Saudi Arabia when new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif made his maiden overseas visit to Riyadh in late April 2022. On the other hand, Sri Lanka is still struggling to secure a loan from the IMF amidst the devastating political turmoil in the country.

Similarly, Pakistan is eager to improve the bilateral economic relationship with Bangladesh and is keen to sign an FTA with it, although Dhaka is reluctant to do so. Bangladesh’s GDP has already crossed the US$ 400 billion mark while Pakistan’s GDP is still less than US$ 300 billion. Also, Bangladesh’s GDP per capita and most of its social indicators are much higher compared to Pakistan. Bilateral trade between Bangladesh and Pakistan was about US$ 1.3 billion in 2011, which declined to US$ 661 million in 2020. Bangladesh’s imports from Pakistan were US$ 947 million in 2011, which dropped to US$ 583 million in 2020, a major concern for Pakistan. Bangladesh’s exports are much lower compared to its imports from Pakistan at only US$ 62 million, accounting for 0.08 per cent of Bangladesh’s total export in 2020. This indicates that Bangladesh is a very important export destination for Pakistan. On the other hand, although Bangladesh imports mainly textiles and cotton, amounting to about US$ 500 million from Pakistan, they are natural trading partners as they export similar products globally.

Pakistan needs to regain its position as an export market to Bangladesh as Islamabad is suffering from hyperinflation and perpetual negative overall trade balance. A friendly relationship with its South Asian partner will help Pakistan make progress in its recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and normalise its bilateral diplomatic relationship with Dhaka. A report by Pakistan Business Council9 indicates that Pakistan’s export potential to Bangladesh is about US$ 2.95 billion. Bangladesh will benefit from importing its garment’s raw materials at a lower price in the pandemic as ready-made garments are the main export items of Bangladesh.

While the smaller South Asian states are struggling to balance their geopolitical ties with the two
giant neighbours, China and India, Bangladesh has successfully balanced its ties with them and emerged as a regional economic power. Bangladesh has started extending loans to its neighbours to address their financial crises, investing overseas and progressively signing preferential trade agreements to enhance bilateral trade and investment cooperation, indicating an emerging power in South Asia. Bangladesh possesses substantial foreign exchange reserves and has developed the capacity to provide economic support to other smaller countries in the region. With loans extended to Sri Lanka
10 and the Maldives, Bangladesh has quickly transformed from an external financial support seeker to a loan provider.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has been struggling with its negative balance of payment and is compelled to borrow conditional loans from the IMF and China. Bangladeshi companies are investing overseas to ensure market access as the country will graduate11 from the United Nation’s List of
Least Developed Countries in 2026. Therefore, a deeper bilateral trade and investment engagement with the business communities on both sides could be a stepping stone to improve bilateral diplomatic relations and trust, which is critical for the betterment of the people of both countries. A formal apology by the Pakistani side for war crimes can only forge deeper bilateral engagement and cooperation between the two states. The dealings of bilateral diplomatic relations require utmost maturity and pragmatism, keeping in mind the regional aspirations of both countries, which will help achieve their mutual national objectives.

Pakistan also has potential to revive cultural ties with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. With Sri Lanka, in particular, Pakistan has been promoting historical Buddhist heritage. Taxila, a significant archaeological site in Punjab, is a reminder of Pakistan’s Buddhist history. Gandhara, the centre of historic Buddhist art, was situated in present-day Peshawar in northwest Pakistan. It is believed that Pali, the language in which the cannons of Theravada Buddhism have been preserved in Sri Lanka, was spoken in some areas of what Pakistan constitutes today. According to some scholars, after the partition of British India in 1947, the pre-Islamic history of Buddhist sculptures and other artefacts were used as instruments of nation-building and forged a unifying historical narrative for East and West Pakistan.12 However, being an Islamic nation, Pakistan rarely recalls its Buddhist heritage. Rather, the Buddhist connection was recalled and revisited during the visit to Sri Lanka. Recalling cultural ties with the Buddhist community in Sri Lanka serves two purposes for Pakistan.

During his term, Khan had emphasised on unleashing his country’s tourism potential.13 Pakistan also agreed to open pilgrimage corridors for Sri Lankans to visit ancient Buddhist heritage sites in the country.14 During Khan’s visit to Sri Lanka, he openly offered to facilitate Buddhist pilgrimage to Sri Lankans. Pakistan also assisted in its public diplomacy and invoked better foreign relations with countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal. Following India’s bid to invoke Buddhism in its outreach to some of its neighbours, Pakistan is seen using its Buddhist heritage in its ties with Sri Lanka and Nepal in recent years. In 2019, it sent sacred relics of Gautama Buddha to Sri Lanka on the occasion of the Vesak Festival in the island nation.17

In terms of Pakistan Bangladesh’s ties, when Musharraf visited Dhaka in July 2002, it was hailed as a huge success because the Pakistan president, who also happened to be the Chief of Army Staff, expressed regret for the events of 1971. Musharraf visited the National Memorial at Savar shortly after arriving in Dhaka to pay tribute to the national heroes of Bangladesh who died during the 1971 war. Musharraf’s statement was warmly received in Bangladesh. Then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia expressed gratitude to Musharraf for his candour and hoped that it would help heal past wounds. It was not a formal apology, but surely a significant step forward because Musharraf was not only Pakistan’s head of the government but also the head of an institution that was responsible for all of Pakistan’s crimes and excesses against Bangladeshis.

Following this, were many problems involving the trials of war criminals in 2013 which only strained the relationship further. Although the two countries are both founding members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and members of the Developing 8 Countries, the Organisation of Islamic Countries, and the Commonwealth of Nations, bilateral relations still exist in deep trouble. The SAARC has been inactive for a long time due to tensions between India and Pakistan, and the South Asia Free Trade Area has been largely ineffective.

Pakistan reaching out to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh will bring immense economic and developmental opportunities for the three countries. It will not only strengthen bilateral trade and economic ties but will also enhance people-to-people partnerships. Most importantly, it will provide an alternative framework for regional diplomacy. Given the India-Pakistan rivalry, SAARC remains inactive and dormant. Most summits are overshadowed by the clash between the two South Asian rivals. Strengthening relations with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka will show that the smaller South Asian countries could independently improve trade and diplomatic ties with Pakistan in low political domains without making it a zero-sum game for India.

Footnotes:

1. Sabiha Hasan, ‘Pakistan-Sri Lanka Relations’, Pakistan Horizon 38(2), 1985, pp. 104-128.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Hasan 1985, ibid., p. 106; M. Mayil-vaganan, ‘Sri Lanka-Pakistan Relations: Search for Strategic Relationship’, FPRC Journal 2, 2014, p. 121.

5. Jiffrey Hashim, Ceylon News Letter, Dawn (Karachi), 12 March, cited in Sabiha Hasan 1985, op. cit.

6. Staff Correspondent, ‘Pakistan Again Sides with War Criminals’, The Daily Star, 12 May 2016. https://www.thedailystar.net/frontpage/pakistan-again-sides-war-criminals-1222429.

7. ‘Khan Tells Mahinda Pakistan Values its Ties with Sri Lanka’, Colombo Gazette, 23 February 2021. https://colombogazette.com/2021/02/23/khan-tells-mahinda-pakistan-values-its-ties-with-sri-lanka/

8. Mayilvaganan, op. cit., p. 124.

9. ‘Trade and Investment Opportunities in a Pakistan-Bangladesh FTA’, The Pakistan Business Council, September 2021. https://www.pbc.org.pk/research/trade-and-investment-opportunities-in-a-pakistan-bangladesh-fta/.

10. Sanjay Kathuria, ‘As Bangladesh Rises, Sri Lanka Finds India is Not the Only Neighbour with Deep Pockets’, The Wire, 10 June 2021. https://thewire.in/south-asia/bangladesh-sri-lanka-south-asia-india-deep-pockets.

11. Md Mustafizur Rahman, ‘Bangladesh’s Graduation: Challenges and Imperatives to Continued International Support Measures’, ISAS Working Paper, 22 July 2021. https://www.isas.nus.edu.sg/papers/bangladeshs-graduation-challenges-and-imperatives-to-continued-international-support-measures/.

12. Andrew Amstuz, ‘A Pakistani Homeland for Buddhism: Displaying a National History for Pakistan Beyond Islam, 1950-1969’, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 42(2), 2019, pp. 237-255.

13. Ashfaq Ahmed, ‘Pakistan Declared World’s Third Highest Potential Adventure Destination for 2020’, World Asia, 29 December 2019. https://gulfnews.com/world/asia/pakistan/pakistan-declared-worlds-third-highest-potential-adventure-destination-for-2020-1.68714974.

14. ‘Khan Tells Mahinda Pakistan Values its Ties with Sri Lanka’, 2021, op. cit. https://colombogazette.com/2021/02/23/khan-tells-mahinda-pakistan-values-its-ties-with-sri-lanka/.

17. ‘Buddha Diplomacy: Pakistan Uses its Inter-Religious Past to Build Modern Ties’, Global Village Space, 2 May 2018. https://www.globalvillagespace.com/buddha-diplomacy-pakistan-uses-its-inter-religious-past-to-build-modern-ties/.