x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Pakistan offers India more than just trade status

After 15 years, Pakistan responds to India's overture on favoured trade status. It's a sign that Islamabad is willing to consider a real improvement in relations.

Who would believe that India is now one of Pakistan's "most favoured nations"? The two countries have far more in common than either tends to admit, but warm brotherly affections have never been high on that list.

Diplomacy has often been conducted in whispers against a backdrop of bombings by Pakistan-based terror groups and voluble threats over territory. That tone, however, may be beginning to change. Pakistan's decision yesterday to grant India preferential trade status, or "most favoured" as the jargon goes, is a sign of goodwill that speaks volumes about the mood in Islamabad towards improving relations.

India offered the same status to Pakistan 15 years ago, and it could be argued that as the larger trading partner, it stands more to gain. The consequences for trade, and how Pakistan's limping economy can benefit, depend on technical negotiations in coming months. For now, it's all about the symbolism.

We had seen nudges in the right direction recently. At a New Delhi summit in July, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar made the right statements about combating terrorism. But, as usual, results were limited to promises to talk about more talks. The best commitments that we had seen from either side for years had been about cricket matches and cross-border bus routes. Most favoured trade status is a significant offer with very real consequences.

The July summit was also notable because it was held immediately after a synchronised bombing attack in Mumbai. India's decision to proceed showed a courageous political commitment to diplomacy (and the attack, in any event, was blamed on homegrown terrorism).

The two countries have so many intractable security issues, from decades-old sparring over Kashmir to today's competition for influence in Afghanistan, that diplomacy always has depended on events of the day. A bombing in Mumbai, or a troop manoeuvre on the border, and talks could be scuttled for months.

That Pakistan's government - and its military, which exerts considerable control over foreign policy - has so clearly reached out to India shows a new commitment to diplomacy. New Delhi under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has consistently pushed for peace talks in recent years. If Islamabad is ready to respond, both sides will find many more areas of shared interest, perhaps most obviously in a deal to scale down military tensions.