Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi paid an official visit to Sri Lanka between December 1 and 2 with a felicitation message from his Government for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to visit Pakistan at his earliest convenience. The invitation, delivered by hand, was extended to the President, who was still fresh after his bilateral engagements with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. During his two day stay, the Pakistani Minister discussed the entire gamut of bilateral relations. In an interview with Daily Mirror after talks with the President, he spelled out his Government’s desires to further ties between the two countries and specially to realise the full potential of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA).
- Discussion focused on defence cooperation, fighting drug menace
- Attention to be paid on the full realisation of FTA between the two countries
- Current volume of bilateral trade is nowhere near optimal level
Q How do you find your interactions and engagements with the new Sri Lankan political leaders?
I have had two meetings so far; one was with the Foreign Minister in the morning. During that meeting we had an excellent discussion on where we stand bilaterally. We discussed where we want to go from where we are. We looked at the history of our foreign relations and the goodwill enjoyed by both sides. We discussed how to build this goodwill for the future. We put together a road map of engagement in the days ahead.
The second meeting was with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Obviously I am here to felicitate him and to congratulate him on behalf of the people of Pakistan. I am carrying an invitation from our President for him to visit Pakistan. He knows Pakistan well. He had been in Pakistan as a young officer. He had been trained at our training institution. He has knowledge of the country and its people. He is an experienced person as Defence Secretary and in terms of the challenges that he faced and the way he dealt with issues relating to terrorism. Both the countries have been through difficult situations. Both have successfully come out of them. Sri Lanka and Pakistan dealt with the menace of terrorism effectively. We are now in the process of getting rid of extremism and undertaking programmes of de-radicalization. We had a good discussion on how to move ahead on bilateral trade, defence cooperation, dealing with the global menace of drugs and how to protect the future generation from this ill, and how to learn from each other’s experience. Sri Lanka is far ahead in tourism. We want to open up vis-à-vis tourism and liberalise the visa regime. We want to learn from the Sri Lankan experience.
We have also seen how Sri Lanka could avail of the offers made by Pakistan. We have given Sri Lanka a credit line of US $ 250 million that it can avail in different areas like agriculture, livestock, science and technology. We are offering 1000 scholarships to Sri Lankan students at our higher education institutions.
He had been in Pakistan as a young officer. He had been trained at our training institution. He has knowledge of the country and its people
Q Sri Lanka and Pakistan cooperated with each other in combating terrorism in the past. Now, Sri Lanka faces a new form of terrorism. You mentioned the need for de-radicalization and fighting extremism. How can the two countries cooperate in this regard?
We enjoy a very conformable relationship based on confidence, trust and goodwill. Whatever Sri Lanka’s needs are Pakistan will be more than happy to assist, whether it is intelligence sharing, capacity building or training forces.
Q You are here in Sri Lanka following a new President being elected. What else does Pakistan expect from Sri Lanka in the new political context?
Our expedition of Sri Lanka has always been positive. Our interactions with Sri Lanka have always been positive. Positivity and goodwill are there. How do we build it developing into an economic relation? How do we develop bilateral trade? We feel that our bilateral trade is nowhere near optimal level. What can be done by both sides? How do we bring the two private sectors together? How can Pakistan cater to your needs vis-à-vis technology and investment, for example? Sri Lanka is very keen on seeing Pakistan setting up sugar and cement industries here. We are more than happy to do so. We offered it. Sri Lankans have expressed their willingness and that offer will materialise.
Q The project proposals to set up sugar processing and cement plants were discussed during the former Rajapaksa administration. It means these proposals are revisited now?
The ball is in the Sri Lankan court .We are ready. You have to respond.
Q Did you discuss it this time?
Yes. We are ready to respond. We await the nod from the Sri Lankan side. You give us a nod. We are ready to respond.
Q There is the Free Trade Agreement between Sri Lanka and Pakistan in operation. Its full potential is yet to be realised. How can it be done in the future for mutual benefit?
That is by improving interactions between the private sectors of the two countries. We have the architecture in place through the FTA. We discussed the FTA. We also discussed how we can expand the FTA by incorporating exporter services. Now, the framework is there. For implementation we need interaction between the private sectors. I have asked the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister that he should be accompanied by business entrepreneurs when he visits Pakistan. We will interface them with the Pakistani people who are interested in trading with Sri Lanka. When these private sectors come face to face, the actual FTA would be implemented in practice. We have to see the state policy and bureaucracy and put up a framework. Implementation will come through the private sector.
Q How can we overcome the bureaucratic hurdles?
Political will. All you require is political will. If the political will is forthcoming, many of these projects could have materialized. Let’s make up for the last five years!
Q Sri Lanka has drawn attention of world powers- the United States, China and India because of its strategic positioning. What’s Pakistan’s perspective in this regard?
We have no hegemonic designs. All we have is goodwill. Pakistan wants to see Sri Lanka prosper. Whenever Sri Lanka has required our support when it was facing difficulties like terrorism at its height, Pakistan is one country that has stood with Sri Lanka unconditionally. We will continue to be supportive and build a good economic relationship. We have a good political relationship. Our bilateral relationship is good. We have been supporting each other at multilateral forums. We have to see how we can translate this political goodwill into mutual economic benefit.
Whenever Sri Lanka has required our support when it was facing difficulties like terrorism at its height, Pakistan is one country that has stood with Sri Lanka unconditionally
Q Does Pakistan see Sri Lanka as a hub for entering into other markets in the region and elsewhere?
Sure. When we start following the ‘look east’ policy, Sri Lanka is an important destination for Pakistan.
Q How do you elucidate the conflicts among South Asian countries?
We are very keen on making SAARC an effective body. Unfortunately, SAARC has become practically dysfunctional because one of the largest members is trying to be obstructive. It is trying to develop forums outside SAARC, and not let SAARC mature into an association for regional benefit. Pakistan wants peace in the neighbourhood. We extended an arm of friendship to both sides. You can see Pakistan is helping in the peace process. The Pakistani Government sent clear messages of mutual respect and co-existence. Unfortunately, the Indian Government has not responded positively.
Q What will be the future of SAARC in that context?
If the present mindset continues, SAARC would be doomed.
Q How is the plan to have SAARC summit in Islamabad?
We are ready. Who is dragging its feet? Pakistan isn’t. Sri Lanka isn’t.