'Pakistan, Turkiye support each other on all issues of core national interest': Pakistan's PM Shehbaz Sharif

In exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, newly elected Pakistan PM Sharif talks range of issues, including economy and regional politics.

'Pakistan, Turkiye support each other on all issues of core national interest': Pakistan's PM Shehbaz Sharif

Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has vowed to transform his country into a self-reliant and politically stable one while assuring to work towards boosting bilateral trade with Turkiye.

Ahead of his three-day official trip to Ankara, Sharif told Anadolu Agency in an exclusive interview that while Islamabad wishes to deepen and widen engagement with the US, it also focuses on infrastructure building under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Here is the full interview of the newly elected prime minister with Anadolu Agency:

Q: Turkiye and Pakistan share fraternal relations which have stood the tide and change in government. While Pakistan is celebrating its 75 years of independence, Turkiye will celebrate its centenary in 2023. There have been a lot of people-to-people interactions happening. The annual bilateral trade surpassed $1 billion this year after nearly a decade. What steps will your government take to further boost the relations?

A: You are right. Pakistan-Turkiye relations are exemplary. These historical relations are grounded firmly in common religious, cultural, and linguistic links and transcend political changes on either side. This year both countries are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. In these seven and a half decades, the two sides have always stood by each other in the face of all changes. Pakistan and Turkiye support each other on all issues of core national interest – whether it is Jammu and Kashmir or Northern Cyprus.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Turkiye, particularly its leadership, for its principled support on Jammu and Kashmir dispute. Both Pakistan and Turkiye have a similarity of views on regional and international issues and enjoy close collaboration on bilateral, regional, and multilateral forums. People-to-people and cultural contacts are on an upward trajectory.

We are now focusing on economic cooperation. The current level of bilateral trade is still not a true reflection of the excellent state of our relationship. This is also an area where immense opportunities exist for both countries. During my visit here, I am meeting leading Turkish business companies to encourage them to utilize the immense opportunities existing in Pakistan in various fields, including energy, infrastructure, e-commerce, municipal agro-based industry and IT sectors, etc. With a population of over 220 million, Pakistan offers its investors a strong and large consumer market with an ever-expanding middle class. Pakistan holds numerous investment opportunities with lucrative returns for investors.

Q: Pakistan shares a long history of being a major non-NATO ally of the US. Islamabad enjoys favorable bilateral trade with Washington of over $6 billion a year. Amid Washington's shifting alliances in wider Asia-Pacific, where does Pakistan find its role in US policy in the region?

A: Pakistan and the US have a longstanding and broad-based relationship in various areas of mutual interest. We believe that our continued constructive engagement can promote peace, security, and development in the region. We wish to deepen and widen our engagement with the US, which remains Pakistan's biggest export market and a major source of FDI and remittances. There is a lot of potential to expand the trade, commercial and investment aspects of this relationship even further.

Pakistan has instituted dialogues with the US in various areas, including climate change, health, energy, trade and investment, which are playing an important role in strengthening our bilateral ties. Some of the US companies are doing extremely well in Pakistan. We encourage major US companies to invest in Pakistan's lucrative market and enhance commercial ties, particularly in the throbbing IT sector.

This year we are celebrating 75 years of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the US and Pakistan.

Q: China is the biggest investor in Pakistan, with almost $28 billion already consumed in infrastructure development and other areas since 2014. What are your focus areas to take forward China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship program of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?

A: The vision of connectivity and win-win cooperation at the heart of the Belt and Road Initiative is in line with my government's priorities, as well as our vision for Pakistan as a peaceful, prosperous region. As the earliest proponent of President Xi's visionary BRI, Pakistan firmly supports the BRI's five-pronged emphasis on physical connectivity, financial cooperation, trade facilitation, policy consultation, and people-to-people linkages. With the CPEC, we have successfully realized our two countries' shared vision and the BRI's ideals. With CPEC entering a new phase of high-quality development, our Belt and Road cooperation will accelerate Pakistan's industrial and economic modernization.

Success in this common cause requires Pakistan and China to maintain CPEC's focus on infrastructure. Improving the business environment with consistent policy support must go hand-in-hand with enhancing the underlying hardware of economic activity. We will therefore work closely with China towards progress on the Main Line I railway, which is a project of strategic significance for Pakistan's multi-modal regional connectivity vision and some other mega projects.

China's investments in Pakistan's road and energy infrastructure under CPEC have helped offset the acute electricity shortfall in Pakistan, connected production centers with markets, created thousands of local jobs and enhanced regional connectivity. Another important focus of CPEC is Pakistan's industrial development. Work is underway on CPEC Special Economic Zones, and we are incentivizing foreign investments in key industrial sectors. Pakistan is committed to the high-quality development of CPEC, including improvements in Pakistan's railways' infrastructure and full realization of Gwadar Port's potential.

'India must revisit its actions of Aug. 5, 2019, and not seek further division'

Q: India is your biggest neighbor and the World Bank estimates show the bilateral trade can rise to $37 billion. But the relations have been downgraded, with almost no trade happening, because of Kashmir. How does your government negotiate trade and promises by India on Kashmir as has been persistent demand by Islamabad?

A: As Pakistan pursues its shift from geo-strategy to geo-economics, we are looking to forge partnerships, especially within the region, based on connectivity, collective development and prosperity. Pakistan and India have a lot to gain from mutually beneficial trade.

However, in the aftermath of the Indian illegal and unilateral steps of 5 Aug. 2019, Pakistan took the principled stance and curtailed a range of bilateral activities. This decision reflected Pakistan’s unequivocal condemnation of the reprehensible Indian design of depriving the beleaguered Kashmiris of their fundamental rights through an unjust and muscular policy.

While we are cognizant of the economic dividends that can be accrued from a healthy trade activity with India. However, in the wake of continued brutalization of the Kashmiri people, attempts to change the demographic structure of the occupied territory (IIOJK), and continued denial by India of the Kashmiris' right, its self-determination, it is hard to imagine that progress can be made on the trade front.

For normalization of relations, India must revisit its actions of Aug. 5, 2019, and not seek further division, bifurcation, and demographic changes in the occupied territory to perpetuate its illegal occupation. In order to accrue the utmost benefit from mutually beneficial trade, the onus lies with India to create a conducive environment for dialogue and engagement.

'Refugee outflow, transnational terrorism from destabilized Afghanistan not serve anyone's interests'

Q: Your neighborhood witnessed Himalayan changes since last year when the US withdrew from Afghanistan which is undergoing serious humanitarian crisis. Pakistan has been the frontrunner seeking engagement between the interim government led by Taliban and international community. How do you see the situation now?

A: Engagement with the interim Afghan government is not a matter of choice but a necessity. The world cannot abandon the Afghan people. It must shoulder the responsibility to immediately address the country’s humanitarian crisis and fragile economy. A total collapse of the Afghan economy would be disastrous for Afghans, Pakistan and the international community. Any instability in Afghanistan will have spillover effects on the neighborhood and beyond. The outflow of refugees and transnational terrorism from a destabilized Afghanistan does not serve the interests of anyone.

Pakistan is also emphasizing to the interim government to live up to their international commitments that the country will not be used for terrorism, that girls and women be able to pursue education, and that they form an inclusive government. The international community should continue to engage with them on these commitments. It is only through sustained engagement that we will be able to advance shared objectives of a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan.

Q: Afghanistan is also mediating between Islamabad and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terror group. Is Taliban assuring Pakistan security that Afghan land will not be used against your country?

A: The current authorities in Kabul have repeatedly given assurances to us as well as to the wider international community that they would not allow their soil to be used against any country. They have also committed to take stern actions against all terrorist out-fits and remove all safe havens from their territory. Like the rest of the international community we expect that the current authorities in Kabul would stand by the commitments that they have made. We shall pursue all avenues for defeating the scourge of terrorism and ensuring the attainment of peace and stability in the region and our country.

Q: Pakistan hosted two Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summits within six months since last year. Islamabad enjoys good relations with Saudi Arabia, as well as Iran. Any plans that your government will take forward Pakistan's attempts to forge closer ranks at the OIC?

A: Pakistan is one of the founding members of the OIC and, with its legacy rooted in the Islamic faith, has consistently supported Muslim causes. We have always played an active and dynamic role to re-invigorate the OIC and forging closer relations with all Muslim countries. As far as our relations with Saudi Arabi and Iran, Pakistan has excellent brotherly relations with Saudi Arabia, and we enjoy equally good relations with Iran. Our relations with both countries are deeply rooted in our shared values, faith, history, culture and traditions. We will continue to strive to promote unity among Muslim Ummah.

Pakistan has always been a staunch supporter of unity and peace among Muslim countries. As the Chair of the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM), we believe that there is an urgent need to preserve the national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of each of our member states.

To this end, our national policies must adhere to the principles of peace and justice reflected in the UN and OIC Charters. We must promote unity and peace with justice and honour in all disputes and conflicts within and beyond the Islamic world. As a Chair of the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers, Pakistan will continue to play its positive role and encourage dialogue and negotiations to bridge divides and bring Ummah together.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, your tenure as Chief Minister of Pakistan's largest Punjab province is lauded for being the economic bellwether of the country. Does that momentum still rage in your capacity as the country's chief executive?

A: As the Prime Minister of Pakistan, I would like to replicate the success and progress that we were able to achieve during my tenure as Chief Minister of Punjab. However, the situation back then was different and the challenges that we now face are far greater in magnitude. So is our determination.

'First challenge is to revive economy'

Q: What are the priority areas of the coalition government among the PML-N, PPP and other smaller parties?

A: The coalition government that I lead has a clear-cut national agenda before it. The first and foremost challenge is to revive our economy that lost steam during the past four years. We not only have to make up for the lost time and repair the damage but also provide it with a long-term direction. Pakistan has witnessed the worst polarization and political partisanship in recent years. Our coalition government aims to achieve political normalization through consensus-building on key national issues.

The third challenge before us is to ensure result-oriented governance that is capable of making a difference in the lives of the people. Our people are suffering from the consequences of the governance meltdown across all walks of life. We have to set this right by reworking the system, and restoring people’s confidence in the government’s ability to deliver services efficiently. We are also invested in the process of introducing electoral reforms that can deliver transparent, fair and free elections in the country. We are working with our coalition partners and other stakeholders in this regard. The governing principle here is to consult and craft consensus around this vital issue.

Last but not least, we endeavor to give a vision of prosperity for the next five years based on our performance while in government. I am a strong advocate for politics of delivery and action, not politics of rhetoric and vendetta.

Q: With a year to go for general elections, if no mid-term elections happen, how do you plan to maneuver the political polarization that seems to get stronger day-by-day?

A: We do not believe in any kind of polarization. We believe in consensus building and broad-based consultation as a recipe to take the country forward. Our coalition government represents almost all political forces across all four provinces except the former ruling party. The political rivals of yesterday have shown the maturity to come together to address the challenges of today.

I believe in political accommodation and dialogue. For this reason, I have invited all political forces, including the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, to sit together and agree on the charter of the economy. For Pakistan to break the boom and bust cycle and gain economic stability, it is important that all political forces work out the minimum rules of the game that ensure continuity of economic policies and provide enabling environment for this purpose. While we are aware of the menace of political polarization, we are working to promote political dialogue and engagement.

Q: Pakistan is undergoing an IMF program. And your government has secured an enhanced tranche of $8 billion from $6 billion as agreed upon earlier. How is your economic team working to battle rising inflation, which is a global phenomenon, while the world is yet coming out of the pandemic which hit hard supply chains?

A: Since assuming power on April 11, 2022, the priority of my coalition government has been to stabilize the economy. Together with external fiscal pressures, especially in terms of international commodities and fuel prices, we have also been dealing with domestic challenges in the shape of increasing inflation and rising food prices.

We are paying the price for the indecisiveness of the previous government, for example, the failure to purchase fuel in a timely manner and the absence of strategic reserves of essential commodities, which was subsequently followed by purchases at a higher price. This impacted the poor people.

The present government is committed to improving the socio-economic indicators, especially for the vulnerable and low-income segment of society.

In this short period of time, my government is working on these areas; tight monetary policy, reduction of fiscal deficit, relief package for the poor, and building strategic reserves of essential commodities.

We are hopeful that the IMF will release the next tranche, which will build the confidence of the international market for investment in Pakistan, thereby alleviating the pressure on foreign exchange reserves.

Hüseyin Demir

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