Pakistani Minister of Planning, Development and Reform Ahsan Iqbal: Pakistani government attaches great importance to development of strong partnership with Russia
Pakistani Minister of Planning, Development and Reform Ahsan Iqbal has given an interview to Interfax in the wake of his visit to Moscow in which he speaks about prospects of interaction between Russia and Pakistan in various spheres, prospects of Russia’s joining the China-Pakistan economic corridor project, the settlement in Afghanistan and prospects of Pakistan’s joining the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.Q.: Mr. Minister, first of all I would like to ask you several questions about your visit to Moscow. Who have you had meetings with? What topics have you discussed? And what are the results of the meetings?
A.: First of all let me say that it is quite a good experience for me to be back in Moscow after many years. My last visit to Moscow was in 1991, when the CIS was being formed. Since then, tremendous progress has been made in the Russian Federation, particularly in Moscow. It is very good experience to be back and witness all the developments.
The purpose of my visit was to attend a ministerial conference on transport organized by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and the Ministry of Transport of the Russian Federation. The purpose of this conference was to look at opportunities for cooperation through connecting different countries, particularly Eurasia. As you are aware, Asia is becoming very important for the world economy. It is expected that by 2050, 52% of world GDP will be produced in Asia. The Russian Federation has a very important link with Asia because it is a country which is located on both continents – Asia as well as Europe. In this context, the focus of the conference was on promoting connectivity in Eurasia through better transport infrastructure.
As you are aware, China’s One Belt, One Road initiative also seeks to connect Asia with Europe. Pakistan is working on a very important section of the One Belt, One Road initiative, called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects seek to link China to Gwadar port of Pakistan through road and rail networks. The infrastructure projects of this Corridor would link Pakistan with Central Asia – Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – and we hope that through these links we can establish effective road and rail networks with the Russian Federation for shipment of goods to Europe. Likewise, from Russia there will be an opportunity for cargo to go by land to Gwadar port, and from Gwadar port by sea to Far East. So, there are huge opportunities for regional cooperation through transport planning and transport infrastructure development. Thus, the major theme of the conference was how to connect Eurasian countries for increased economic cooperation and trade. These linkages will obviously bring people together, and also help in bringing peace and stability in different regions.
Q.: When will Russia be able to use Gwadar port? When will the agreement be signed? Are talks underway at the moment? Does Russia intend to use the port for exports?
A.: Gwadar is a deep sea port which offers a unique advantage to countries in the region. We hope that for Central Asia republics which are land-locked, Gwadar port will be ideal. Similarly, for Russia and other countries in the region, it is a very attractive port for doing trade with African as well as Asian countries. As soon as the road and rail networks are completed, all the countries in this region will be able to do their trade through Gwadar port.
Q.: It was reported earlier that Russia wants to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects, and that is why Russia has asked Pakistan to allow the use of Gwadar port. Is it true that Russia wants to join the project? Has there been any request from the Russian side?
A.: There is no official request as yet from Russia to join this project. However, many countries have expressed their interest, which include Iran, Saudi Arabia and Central Asian republics. This project, as I mentioned, seeks opportunities not just for Pakistan, but for the entire region by promoting regional connectivity. So, it will be open to countries that wish to use the infrastructure that we are building for connectivity through road, rail as well as sea ports. We will very much welcome the use of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor infrastructure by all countries which want to do trade with the rest of the world through this Corridor.
Q.: How in general will you describe relations between Russia and Pakistan? What are the most interesting issues in this relationship?
A.: I think, during the last three years, we have seen tremendous improvement in relations between Pakistan and Russia. The government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attaches great importance to development of strong partnership with Russia. In the past too, we had good relations with Russia. Soviet Union helped us in building the country’s first Steel Mill. We were also able to complete many important projects in the energy sector with the assistance of Russia, or the Soviet Union. But now, I think, there is a new beginning in our relationship. Our leaders have met with each other. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Ufa last year and met with President Vladimir Putin. There has been a regular exchange of visits at ministerial level. Both sides are working closely for the implementation of Agreement on construction of North-South Gas Pipeline, from Karachi to Lahore, with the help of Russia. I think this is the beginning of a new partnership.
Pakistan is a country with a population of 200 million, and 80 to 90 million of this population constitute middle class. Pakistan is located at the intersection of three engines of growth in Asia, i.e. South Asia, China and Central Asia, which has three billion of world’s population. Pakistan, through north-south and east-west corridors, seeks to connect this big market. Many international investors, therefore, are looking at Pakistan to enter this big market whose potential is enormous in all respects. There are opportunities in a number of fields including infrastructure, energy, industry, agriculture and trade. I hope there will be a new impetus to our relationship.
We are also very keen to learn from the scientific development of Russia. It has enormous wealth of knowledge. As we are a developing country, we want to industrialize and develop strong industrial links with developed economies. During my stay here, I also discussed with the Moscow State University opportunities for collaboration with our universities. We want to establish collaborative relationship between our universities and leading universities of the Russian Federation, so that there is exchange of students and faculty, and we can also have more Pakistani students in the universities of the Russian Federation.
We are very pleased that Pakistan and Russia were able to hold joint military exercise recently in Pakistan. We have very strong commitment to eliminating extremism and terrorism. Pakistan’s armed forces have gained a wealth of experience while combating terrorism and extremism. That is a capability that we want to share with other countries which are also battling extremism and terrorism, so that we can all work together for a peaceful world.
Q.: You have mentioned the North-South gas pipeline. When will this project be completed? Are there any obstacles for the implementation of the project?
A.: We are very optimistic that construction will start next year. And this will be a very important project for Pakistan because we have shortage of gas in the country, and we need gas for power generation and our industry.
Besides, there are opportunities now in the engineering sector. In the past, we had considered collaboration in the automobile sector including assembling in Pakistan, but unfortunately, when the government in Pakistan was overthrown in 1999, that project could not materialize. However, I think that we can now revive such cooperation. We wish to explore as to how we can benefit from the expertise of the Russian Federation in the engineering sector, because we want to build a strong engineering base in Pakistan. So, there are opportunities for Russian engineering companies to do joint ventures in Pakistan.
Q.: Can you name some of the companies?
A.:You know we are looking at different sectors. These include engineering, chemical, telecommunication and automotive sectors. We are trying to find good partners in these sectors, and now we also see that there is potential in Russian companies, and we hope that in the future, there will be joint ventures between Pakistani and Russian companies.
Q.: Do you see any problem with investments of Russian companies into Pakistan? Does the security situation in Pakistan influence this area?
Q.: Pakistan has a very stable security situation now. A number of multinationals are working in Pakistan from all over the world, including U.S. companies, European companies and Chinese companies. Pakistan is a very big market. It is the sixth most populous country in the world with a population of 200 million and very big middle class. No big company which has a global mindset and looks at global economy can totally ignore Pakistan. Therefore, Pakistan is now fully prepared to welcome foreign investment. Our growth rate of 4.71% last year was the highest in eight years. Pakistan’s economy is now rebounding. This year we hope to achieve growth rate of more than 5%. Our foreign exchange reserves have increased by three times in last three years. Our Stock Exchange is amongst the top three stock markets in Asia. So, Pakistan’s economy is now booming, and we hope, just as other investors are coming to Pakistan, Russian investors and companies will also be coming to Pakistan.
Q.: Pakistan will soon be a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). What opportunities can you see from this big step? What are your expectations?
A.: We are grateful to the Russian Federation for its support to Pakistan’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). We are looking forward to becoming a full member of SCO in 2017 and working closely with member states for enhancing economic opportunities, addressing challenges facing the region and promoting peace and stability.
Q.: Historically, Russia and India have been really close, and nowadays we call it strategic partnership. Meanwhile, Pakistan has been closer to the United States. Do you think that this tradition can somehow influence the building of relations between Russia and Pakistan? And will Russia-Pakistan relations reach the level of strategic partnership?
A.: I think that the world is changing, and this new world is witnessing that many countries are now reaching out to various countries to diversify relations. In the past there was strategic partnership between India and Russia only, but now India has strategic partnership with the U.S. as well. It wants to open up its options. Similarly, I think Russia and Pakistan also have the right to open up their options and to develop strong partnership. Today, every country is building relations everywhere, because they want to broaden their reach and sphere of friendship to have more economic benefits. So, Pakistan wants to develop strong relations with Russia, and Russia is also showing great sentiment towards Pakistan, and we appreciate the sentiment of the Russian leadership to start a new chapter in the Russia-Pakistan relationship.
Q.: What policy do you expect from U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in the region? Will it have influence on Russia-Pakistan relations? And what are your expectations from possible new U.S. policy towards Afghanistan, which is a very close neighbor of Pakistan?
A.: You see Afghanistan is very important for Pakistan, because the situation in Afghanistan directly impacts Pakistan. Pakistan is the most affected country due to the situation in Afghanistan. We have huge stake in peace in Afghanistan, because we will be the first beneficiary of the peace, and if there is turmoil in Afghanistan we are the first one to pay a very high price. We are working with many countries in various formats to promote peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. We are also working with the U.S. Now Russia, China and Pakistan will also be discussing ways to promote peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. It is a welcome step. We think that regional countries have a major stake in the situation. We all, therefore, have to work very closely for peace in Afghanistan.
Q.: Can you tell more about this initiative?
A.: This initiative of regional countries is very important because we in one way or another are directly connected to Afghanistan. We have a role to play in this situation by supporting each other in terms of facilitating the return of peace in Afghanistan. Whatever influence these countries can exercise, whatever role they can play will be very beneficial, just as we are working with the international community. There is no exclusivity in Afghanistan. Many NATO member countries also have a role to play in promoting peace in Afghanistan, and we are working with NATO as well. I think the primary responsibility rests with regional countries, because we have a major stake in the situation. We have to think together and we have to work together to see how we can bring peace to Afghanistan as early as possible.
Q.: Russian presidential envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said earlier that Russia, China and Pakistan will meet in Moscow soon to discuss Afghanistan. Do you know the exact date of the meeting?
A.: I think the date will be decided soon. We will participate in the meeting.
Q.: Is Pakistan aware of Russia’s contacts with Taliban in Afghanistan?
A.: No, I am not aware of such contacts.
Q.: I know that it is not your subject, but still. What are the prospects of Pakistan’s joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty?
A.: Pakistan is a responsible nuclear weapon State. We were not the first to introduce nuclear weapons in South Asia. Pakistan is committed to the objectives of non-proliferation. We were the first country to propose a nuclear weapon free South Asia, but India did not reciprocate and carried out nuclear tests and brought nuclear factor in the equation of South Asian security. Pakistan, therefore, had to respond. More recently, consistent with its commitment to act as a responsible nuclear state that seeks to avoid an arms race in the region, Pakistan has proposed to India to translate our respective voluntary unilateral nuclear test moratoriums into a more binding bilateral arrangement. I wish to underscore the significance of strategic stability in South Asia. It is important that there is no discrimination and whatever treatment is given to India, the same treatment is given to Pakistan. Non-discriminatory access to nuclear technology for peaceful uses, including nuclear energy, and a criteria based approach for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group of Non-NPT States are essential in this regard.
Q.: What is your assessment of tourist prospects between Russia and Pakistan? The bilateral tourist flow is rather small. What are the prospects for boosting cooperation in the field of tourism? And what about the visa issue?
A.: We discussed this issue during my bilateral meeting with the Minister of Transport of Russia. In the past there used to be an air link between Pakistan and Russia. We need to revive direct air link and also consider air cargo service, so that we can start doing more business. We also have to facilitate issuance of visas to businessmen and tourists. The two governments are now working on this. We need to promote more people to people contacts and tourism from both sides. Most importantly, business-to-business links need to be strengthened, so that economic cooperation can lay the foundation for a very strong political relationship between our countries.