Pakistan sees the U.S. returning to a level of trust in international systems, a welcome shift during an era of dramatic challenges requiring deeper global cooperation, the country’s top diplomat in Houston told Global Atlanta.
Calling the COVID-19 pandemic one of the biggest epochal changes in modern times, Consul General Abrar Hashmi said the world must work together to address the twin health and economic crises it has created.
“We should for the time being put aside politics and concentrate on its impacts — containing it first, and then coming out of the recession, which is very much imminent,” he said.
During a virtual Global Atlanta Consular Conversation interview sponsored by Miller & Martin PLLC, the diplomat covering 10 states in the South said his country has always been committed to working collaboratively with the U.S., no matter who holds the presidency.
Mr. Hashmi did admit there had been some uneasy “departures” in the countries’ views over time, especially over Pakistan’s position on the Afghanistan war.
Even as it has offered aid for Pakistan’s own fight against terror, the U.S. has long accused Pakistan’s intelligence services of allowing Taliban militants from Afghanistan to retreat across their shared border and regroup in order to launch attacks.
Still, Mr. Hashmi saw vindication for Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s position in the framework reached last week by the Afghan government and Taliban forces to begin peace talks in earnest after two decades of conflict.
“He always said so and he maintained it —that the solution to this imbroglio is to go and talk, to negotiate,” he said.
The U.S and Pakistan also find themselves on opposite sides of growing global momentum toward challenging China on a variety of fronts.
Encouraged by the U.S., Pakistan’s arch rival India has taken a harder line on China since a June skirmish in disputed borderlands near Ladakh killed more than 20 Indian soldiers and an undisclosed number of Chinese troops.
Relations have worsened since then, with India blocking more than 200 Chinese mobile apps and tightening security reviews for Chinese investment, while ramping up its own manufacturing sector.
The U.S. has consistently warned other countries that China is aiming to export its brand of authoritarian capitalism and entrap countries with usurious infrastructure loans.
Pakistan has always been an “opening” for China to the world, Mr. Hashmi said, reminding the virtual audience of mostly Atlantans that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger flew from Pakistan into China in 1971 to inaugurate President Nixon‘s secret talks on normalization with the communist country.
This opening is becoming a more literal reality with the $70 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a network of highways, rail lines, power plants and special economic zones funded by China that will eventually link its western regions to the Arabian Sea via Pakistan.
Mr. Hashmi framed China as a partner providing much-needed investment to improve the lives of 220 million Pakistanis “longing for development.”
“I think it is a harbinger of a new era of development in Pakistan. We partner with all the countries in the region, and we wish that situation improves with India, especially the kind of high-handedness being meted out to the people of Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir,” Mr. Hashmi said.
He seemed to be referencing India’s move last August to revoke the India-controlled region’s limited autonomy and administrate it directly.
“It is in nobody’s favor that we bring in conflicts and war,” Mr. Hashmi said.
Both sides have increased shelling along the line of control to record levels this year, each accusing the other of inflaming the situation and fomenting terrorism.
But Pakistan, which has called for the world to condemn India’s treatment of its Muslim minorities, has been roundly criticized for failing to confront China on its internment of Muslim Uighurs in labor camps in the northwestern Xinjiang province, home to the 320-mile border China shares with Pakistan.
Asked about this discrepancy, Mr. Hashmi noted that relations with China are multifaceted and complex, and that “China is changing” slowly.
“We don’t claim that we understand them the best, but being in the neighborhood we understand them very well,” he said, adding that Pakistan will soon begin a new three-year term on the United Nations Human Rights Council. “I must say that we are very comfortably dealing with China.”
COVID-19 and Health Infrastructure
China’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate among those undergoing clinical trials in Pakistan at the moment, Mr. Hashmi said, sounding a note of appreciation for U.S. involvement in improving the health sector in his country.
Pakistan inherited a tiered health care system from the British that has “been broken” under the weight of insufficient investment and population growth.
Groups like CARE and the Task Force for Global Health in Atlanta are filling crucial gaps, by working on poverty-reduction in slums of major urban areas and polio eradication, respectively.
He added that many Pakistani-origin doctors among the diaspora communities in the U.S. are contributing their expertise to the country.
Pakistan has recorded about 426,000 COVID-19 cases and just 8,600 deaths, relative success given its large population, though cases are rising again and positive test rate nearly reached 10 percent this week, a record.
Mr. Hashmi attributed Pakistan’s early success to transparent communication and data sharing through the Ministry of National Health’s covid.gov.pk website, along with targeted lockdowns that balanced the health emergency with economic realities.
“(Prime Minister Khan) had this point in mind that if there’s a complete lockdown, it will have a tremendous effect on the poor,” he said, noting that 20 percent of Pakistanis live day-to-day.
Keeping people from migrating internally has also been vital to keeping infections down, he said.
“People did not travel out of cities to their small towns or rural areas, so generally rural areas have been spared from the spread,” Mr. Hashmi said.
Pakistan’s response has also including fiscal stimulus, with the government committing 1.2 trillion rupees (about $8 billion) to address challenges that have arisen as a result of COVID-19. That included wage relief to daily workers, cash transfers to low-income families, tax refunds to small-business exporters, agricultural support, grain procurement and much more.
Investment Opportunities and Prospects for an Atlanta Consulate
The disbursements of cash were done via banking and digital finance platforms, bolstered by the country’s efforts to modernize mobile infrastructure has taken off. Installation of fiber optic lines and new cell capacity has enabled the country to rapidly switch to online learning during the pandemic, Mr. Hashmi said.
Pakistan moved up by 26 spots in the World Bank’s Doing Business this year by reforming policies around establishing a business, acquiring land and repatriating subsidiaries’ earnings.
The U.S. Embassy in the country has focused on fostering entrepreneurship, and Mr. Hashmi hopes more companies will join the likes of Coca-Cola Co. in tapping into Pakistan’s vast consumer market.
He also expressed interest in linking the ports of Savannah and Karachi for a memorandum of understanding on logistics collaboration. The U.S. is Pakistan’s largest export destination for exports, selling nearly $4 billion in goods here in 2019, with textiles accounting for some 80 percent of the volume.
Back in Houston, the pandemic has accelerated the consulate’s digitization of services.
Mr. Hashmi, an experienced diplomat whose last assignment in Islamabad included the implementation of a new e-visa scheme covering 180 countries, said his team is now working on moving online the remaining 30 percent of visa, passport and other services still performed in person at the consulate.
The pandemic has also curtailed travel, leaving Mr. Hashmi’s team unable to meet a planned increase in annual visits to Atlanta from one to three in 2020.
While the Pakistani-origin community in Texas tops 100,000, it stands at a formidable 30-35,000 in Georgia, bolstered by organizations like the Pakistani American Friends of Atlanta and the Pakistani American Community of Atlanta. That healthy diaspora, plus Atlanta’s role as a growing commercial hub replete with Fortune 500 headquarters, makes it a natural choice should Pakistan ever expand its consular network in the U.S., Mr. Hashmi said.
Much to the chagrin of local Pakistanis, though, that doesn’t seem be on the immediate horizon, even in the form of an honorary consul.
“I think we had discontinued some time ago appointing honorary consuls. It’s a policy decision, and there could be a review of it. I don’t know when it would come back.”
These times have also revealed how much of the work can be done remotely, all while denting public revenues.
“Now this is not the time, perhaps, to expand the diplomatic footprint,” said Mr. Hashmi, who spoke to Global Atlanta’s virtual audience from isolation as he battled a “nasty experience” with COVID-19, which he called a “very, very ugly pathology.”
The consul general ended the call with well wishes to the audience and an invitation for readers to contact his office with any questions related to investment, trade or diplomatic procedures, reiterating Pakistan’s willingness to work with the incoming Biden administration.
“We are open, and whosoever comes to power in the United States, we are here to interact. We will go by the priorities and we will try to understand your case. One silver lining is that all those good things which have happened between the two countries over time, we will be carrying them forward, inshallah.”
Contact the consulate at https://pakistanconsulatehouston.org.