By: Shahzad Chaudhry

There is perhaps too much wrong with Pakistan. Yet, it always seems to be on the verge of breaking out of the morass that holds it back, belying the cynicism which competes equally. The energy and vivacity lurk just below the surface ready to force out through the calm of stagnation without success. The critical mass needed to break out of ordinariness is lacking even if the sense of imminence has always been there.

There has to be a way out of this impasse. What we soothe with unparalleled borrowing may drown us in the end unless we can convert the advantage of borrowed time into useful productivity. Industry lies dead and exports continue to dwindle further, exacerbating the balance of payment deficit. Jobs are non-existent even as approximately two million jobseekers enter the market every year.

This number will only increase with time as Pakistanís population blooms. It needs for the economy to grow at around eight percent in real terms - not in made-up numbers - to make place for such entrants. If not given a purposeful opportunity, this youth could easily wander away into nefarious nets making for more decades of horror. The explosive population growth with its attendant needs should drive every vision of a future socioeconomic base. Pakistanís security is thus as much linked to its economic health.

CPEC is an opportunity to put things right. It is not the panacea, but can be the means out of our ills. Reach, travel and exchange of goods is only one measure; how it physically binds the country together is the other. The economic activity generated by CPEC will fruitfully connect widespread populations into a common national stake, mitigating the adversity borne out of isolation. If properly value-added it can serve as insurance for economic and national security. This is how it could go.

As an economy we have suffered more for lack of infrastructure, which includes connectivity and energy. Without reliable energy, industry wouldnít function and without connectivity the goods wouldnít move. This has been the recipe for Pakistanís economic disaster. CPEC enables both. Gwadar and the north-south road-rail link between Gwadar and Kashgar in China means the basic spine is in place. Limited to China it will easily move its stuff up and down, triggering economic activity in its remote Xinjiang province. That it also enables an alternate trade route, one that can deliver it its most critical energy needs is a welcome addition.

By giving out 55 billion dollars China has secured its people and their socioeconomic interests. What is of essence is how Pakistan adds value to CPEC beyond the implicit advantage and borrowing credit to make up for its energy needs. Clearly, economic activity must be rejuvenated. This comes in two forms. Increased industrial activity can enhance production and give greater profit, while added policy incentives to sustain growth can woo back those who had left disappointed with the prospects. In-country movement of goods can generate useful and easier trade. Yet it may not be enough. Exports earn foreign exchange Ė the means to get critical supplies for the industry to function and create jobs. These will need to initially recover and then multiply.

With a north-south orientation, CPEC can only incrementally add to what the ten billion dollars trade between China and Pakistan already offers in value and volume. Even here the balance is heavily tilted in Chinaís favour. This balance can only skew further with easier trade. Pakistan must, therefore, seek alternate markets to sustain its production volumes for export and retaining jobs. Could these markets be found in the eastern and western neighbourhoods of Pakistan? The cost of goods and their movement determines their viability. Only if CPEC were to also connect and expand both east and west would more markets be enabled where Pakistani goods would be viable.

Eastward connectivity can lure India into a more complementary relationship leveraging for Pakistan the possibility of a peaceful neighbourhood while enabling India its required access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Manifest with the advantages of cheap energy needed by Indiaís growing economy, it can open the doors to settling historical conflicts to mutual satisfaction. In a mutual fund under the SCO or the ECO, Pakistan could offer its pivotal geographic endowment to laterally link with state-of-the-art east-west road and rail networks with the CPEC spine to unleash the potential garnered in these locked regions.

Such free flow, either way, of economic potency can only exponentially add to prosperity. If others do not wish to join, Pakistan must on its own link all its eastern and western regions to this central spine of CPEC. When opportunity presents, others can plug into it from India, Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia. That is value added to CPEC which will favour Pakistan beyond the advantages that are only incidental and implicit.

Will that mean changing the way Pakistan looks at its security paradigm? For sure. We need to relent now to gain greater good in the future and secure Pakistan for our future generations. Indirect strategy through leveraging Pakistanís greatest potential of being the economic pivot for Central, South and South-West Asia is the key to Pakistanís secure future. The time for it is now Ė when CPEC unlocks the region and paradigm shifts in our thought process can help us re-imagine the future.

Two other enablers of socioeconomic reorientation beyond physical connectivity and adequate energy are education and health. There are more which can internally bolster Pakistan against any instability, like downsizing political and administrative units, but those can be controversial and can wait till a more educated and prosperous Pakistan can rise above the tribal traps of parochial sensitivities. Given our resource limitations, it may also be right to focus on these in phases.

It would be prudent to complete the infrastructure development and energy provisioning under CPEC to accrue maximum advantage in the shortest time. The PML-N government is imbued with the ownership of these and, despite its ongoing afflictions, remains the party most committed to infrastructure development. It also has the leadership with appeal to mould a neighbourhood into a peaceful region leveraging Pakistanís geographical advantage for mutual gain. That will though need more imaginative leadership and a certain liberty of action.

Education and health have been in the PTIís remit in KP. These need to expand country-wide in a serious undertaking through allocation of resources from the PSDP to upgrade and institute wholesale improvements in these sectors. That in no way discounts what others can pitch in with as well but this largely describes the institutional orientation of these parties.

Were it so, it would behoove Pakistanís interest for the PML-N to win back another mandate of five years followed by a tenure under the PTI which could perhaps resolve the socioeconomic inadequacies that bedevil Pakistan. Will the Panama judgement, and the electorate impacted by that judgement, afford such flexibility in options? Time alone, and the judgement soon, will tell.