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(August 21,2018) 'New Pakistan' faces big challenges - Kavi Chongkittavorn

Pakistan's newly sworn-in Prime Minister Imran Khan has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make his country's presence felt both regionally and globally.

His new government will have to tackle serious political and economic issues. His victory signalled a broad consensus that Pakistan cannot continue to be embroiled in domestic turmoil and terrorist-infested narratives.

As a former world-famous cricketer and celebrity in his own right, the new prime minister knows how to engage the masses, whether they are inside or outside the country. It is hoped that he will be able to change the unfavourable image of his country.

In the coming days, Mr Khan will have to deal with old power wielders, made up of military and bureaucrats, over the direction of economic reforms that would lift the nation's standard of living, improve government revenue and cut spending. Education and health need urgent investment after years of neglect. With a clear economic and social agenda, Mr Khan will need a balanced foreign policy that would generate confidence abroad and attract foreign investors and financing from international lending organisations. To have a stable regional environment, that would mean good relations with neighbouring Afghanistan, India and Iran.

Further away would be the US, China and other emerging powers. Under Mr Khan, Pakistan will need to adopt a proactive foreign policy toward East Asia, akin to the Act East policy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Domestic issues have prevented policy-makers to look beyond its frontier. Now is the time. Pakistan must diversify its foreign connections, reducing its high level of dependency on Chinese aid and assistance by quickly tapping into the dynamic economic growth of East Asia and Asean. Its ties with the US need recalibration but from the local vantage's points.

While one of the new government's top priorities is to engage Afghanistan and India to ensure regional stability and reduce tension, the complexity of the relationship between power brokers in the conflict-ridden region would need to be carefully realigned among the elites in Rawalpindi and New Delhi. That said, Mr Khan must not let outstanding issues such as Kashmir or talking to the Taliban block his broader vision of more economic integration with East Asia. Previous Pakistani governments were unable to move beyond these political doldrums. The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation remains a big bone of contention, as it has yet to make substantial progress on cooperation because of the dynamics between India and Pakistan.

In the early 1990's there was optimism that both India and Pakistan would be quickly brought into the regional economic embrace. Asean simultaneously admitted the South Asian economic powerhouses as sectoral dialogue partners with much fanfare and hope in 1993. Asean wanted to look westward to South Asia, mindful of the strong cultural, economic and strategic ties between both regions. After India and Pakistan attained nuclear power status, their strategic values and broader relations with Asean were topics of discussions. Their diasporas in Southeast Asia are also strong and influential economic driving forces.

Truth be told, the 17th Asean Summit in 2010 in Hanoi discussed ways to persuade the two Asian nuclear powers to sign the 1995 Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. Then-foreign minister Kasit Piromya proposed the initiative, but no consensus was reached. In the past two decades, India has been able to jump the queue and since then has transformed ties with Asean -- becoming a full dialogue partner in 1996, and a strategic partner in 2012. Now, India and Asean are working closely in shaping the new Indo-Pacific strategy.

Unfortunately, Pakistan has pegged with the status quo for the past 25 years.

It is not easy to comprehend why Pakistan has failed to deepen its ties with Asean. First of all, it has been difficult to deal with Asean collectively because of the 10-member grouping's differing perceptions and levels of support for Pakistan. In the past two decades, whenever Pakistan's status was raised for discussion, polarisation quickly ensued, and as a result, members avoided the issue. Second, Pakistan does not offer tangible benefits to Asean, except to compete with India, which is an impression that Pakistan has not been able to dispel.

Asean has also found it difficult to speak out. In 2016, the total value of Asean-Pakistan trade stood at US$6.3 billion (208.4 billion baht), which pales in comparison to the value of Asean-India trade in the same period, which stood at US$81.37 billion (2.7 trillion baht).

Furthermore, there is no champion within Asean to endorse Pakistan's longstanding desire to become a full dialogue partner and beyond -- though Malaysia and Thailand used to be strong supporters of Pakistan in Asean.

In the case of Thailand, there also exists a special bond. Thai-Pakistani ties were deep-rooted during the Cold War -- both were members of the now-defunct Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation, along with the US and other Western allies. The relationship managed to survive until today, with close military cooperation between both nations, as well as frequent high-level personal exchanges.

With a fresh leader in Rawalpindi, the time is now ripe for Pakistan to break the long-held stereotypical thinking within Asean with bold and deliverable initiatives. After all, the present dramatic shift in the international strategic environment has again made Pakistan a strategic partner of Asean. When the Asean Regional Forum was launched in 1995, Pakistan and India were the only two countries included as part of the grouping's strategic footprint in South Asia. The time has now come to revisit and rejuvenate the 25-year-old relationship.