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Islamabad’s U-turn on trade with India is telling

In a sharp U-turn, Pakistan reversed its proposal to allow import of sugar, cotton and yarn from India within 24 hours of the announcement. Coming on the heels of the February ceasefire agreement between the two countries, the proposal was initially seen as willingness on Islamabad’s part to begin a process of normalisation with New Delhi. But the quick reversal is a symptom of contradictory impulses informing Islamabad’s approach towards India.

On the one hand Beijing is in “wolf warrior” mode, leaning hard on India on the LAC and raising the temperature on Kashmir, which excites certain factions within Pakistan for obvious reasons. These same factions are inclined to think that things are looking Islamabad’s way in Afghanistan, with Taliban gaining ground. But on the other hand, the new Biden administration in the White House looks determined to step up resistance to Beijing’s designs in Asia, and in an ensuing quasi-Cold War situation Pakistan could get stuck like a deer in the headlights. Smarter people in Pakistan realise that placing all their eggs in Beijing’s basket is fraught with high risk, rhetoric about “iron brotherhood” between Pakistan and China notwithstanding.

In a piquant irony, Islamabad may well want to look for a non-aligned space as a Cold War-like situation develops, even as India becomes a frontier state and is willy nilly forced to choose sides as a powerful Beijing steps up pressure on it. Pakistan’s economy has been hurting due to its investment in jihad, linked to its anti-India posture. Inflation jumped to 9.1% in March; if sugar imports from India had gone ahead it would have slashed prices by up to 20% for Pakistani households. There is thus a strong logic for normalising ties with India. Delhi must watch carefully which way the Pakistani elite is inclining, and respond accordingly.

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This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.



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