BY: Mohammed Ali, Canberra
It is not strange to find that many countries of the world have a love-hate relationship with Pakistan. Take example of America. History tells us that despite Pakistan proving itself to be the closest ally, response from the USA to Pakistan has always been characterised with significant ups and downs. Many European countries also fall in the same category. But there is one country, which is Western by all standards, yet it has never shown any mood swings to Pakistan. It has always maintained a steady relationship based on respect and equity, which in the recent years has escalated. This country is Australia.
Diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Australia were established in 1948, with reciprocal establishment of missions in both countries. These relations enjoyed a significant boost in 2001 when Australia recognised Pakistan’s key role in the global fight against terrorism. Further strengthening of the mutual ties commenced in 2005 when the former president of Pakistan General Pervez Musharraf visited Australia, a visit which was reciprocated in the same year by the then Australian Prime Minister, Mr John Howard.
Mutual visits at other higher levels have also been a norm between the two nations. In February 2009, the Honourable Stephen Smith MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs, visited Pakistan. In his visit, Mr Smith met with President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani, as well as a number of senior ministers in the Pakistani government, including Foreign Minister Mr Shah Mehmood Qureshi. Former Attorney- General Phillip Ruddock visited Pakistan in 2007. Earlier, in 1998, Pakistan’s then senate chairman, Mr Wasim Sajjad paid a visit to Australia. Pakistan’s current president, Mr Asif Zardari has also reportedly visited Australia when he was a minister in an earlier government. Mr Tim Fisher, Former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, can also be included in this list.
The relationship between Pakistan and Australia is multidimensional. It includes educational and economic assistance, and trade and commerce ties. Australia has recently announced doubling of its assistance programme for the next two years i.e. from A$ 60 million to 120 million. Australia exported A$490 million worth commodities to Pakistan in 2007-08. These included coal, lead, vegetable products and fertilizers. In return, Pakistan exported textiles, clothing and rice with a total value at $154 million in the same year. Commercial links between Australia and Pakistan include BHP Billiton’s investment in Pakistan’s Zamzama gas field, valued at US$100 million. Zamzama is considered Pakistan’s fourth-largest gas field and is situated approximately 300 kilometres north of Karachi.
On the education side, the Australian scholarship programme offered to the Pakistani student since 2006 to study in various Australian universities has further brought two countries close. While 500 students from Pakistan will benefit from this scholarship programme, there are more than 5000 Pakistani students studying in Australian Universities. It is a matter of pride for Pakistan that all Pakistani students are rated amongst the best students. The assessment level of Pakistani students opting for admissions in Australian universities has also been upgraded because of the outstanding performance of Pakistani students.
Economic, trade and educational ties aside, the most important aspect of Pakistan Australia relations is the bilateral defence relations between the two countries. With the exception of a short period between 1998 and 2001 when these relations soured due to nuclear tests in Pakistan, the two countries have cherished these mutual relations since they were established in 1948. Australia’s Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, has visited Pakistan three times since 2005, most recently in May 2008. This year, Australian Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Russ Crane visited Pakistan in February 2009. In return many high level Pakistani defence force personnel have visited Australia. The hallmark of these visits was the visit this year by General Tariq Majid, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.
The foundation of Pakistan-Australian Defence relations was laid even before the establishment of Pakistan in 1947. Many Australians do remember Field Marshal Blamey (1884-1951) but only few know that the honourable Field Marshal was a 1912 graduate of the Command and Staff College, Quetta (an important city of Pakistan), which was then part of the British Raj. Over the years, these foundations have been strengthened by many defence based information exchanges and cooperation between the two countries. An example was in 1988 when Pakistan purchased some 44 Mirage aircrafts from Australia, which are still operative. Pakistan has also been part of the joint naval exercises of Royal Australian Navy as one of the participating countries. An example was in 2008 when two Naval Ships of Pakistan Navy participated in RAN Exercise KAKADU-2008, carried out in Darwin.
Various defence training programs / experience sharing initiatives have always existed between the defence forces of the two countries. These include; attendance of different long duration courses on reciprocal basis, short duration training programmes, seminars, symposiums and conferences, attracting officers from both sides. It is highly likely that Australia would send more of its defence force officers in the near future for training purpose to Pakistan.
Australian Defence Force did not forget Pakistan at the time of the deadly earthquake in Kashmir in October 2005. Australia had sent a 142 members medical group which offered its humanitarian and medical support to the victims in the affected areas. This group did an excellent job and won hearts of thousands of sufferers. The then Prime Minister Mr John Howard also visited this group during its stay in Pakistan and shared his ‘wonderful’ cricketing skills with the group members.
Australia has a deep realisation that Pakistan is currently facing many challenges and needs to be supported by the international community in his way ahead. This notion was recently re-echoed at a forum held by a Canberra based independent organisation known as ‘Forum Australia’. The speakers at the forum appreciated the role of Pakistan government and recognised that it should not be left alone in its efforts to fight terrorism. Acknowledging this and similar earlier calls, Australian government recently announced “a significant increase in the defence cooperation programmes / training courses, etc in Australia for Pakistan military personnel”. The training positions have been increased from 6-7 positions to seventy during the current year and are likely to increase further during coming years. This will assist Pakistan in all related fields, particularly in the capacity building of security forces including police force in Pakistan. In addition, Australia has also committed to provide counter-insurgency training to six Pakistani officers at the Australian Defence College in late 2009. This is considered vital in increasing Pakistan defence forces expertise in dealing with the existing challenges.
It would not be out of place to review role of Australia in Afghanistan war at this stage. Australia is not a NATO member yet it is a significant contributor to bring peace in Afghanistan. Recently, the Australian government has increased its contribution from 1100 to 1550 Australian troops, mainly in Uruzgan Province. Australian contingent in the province is doing wonderful in building societal and social infrastructure. One of the main priorities is building schools and hospitals for local population, some thing regarded as “life line” for the war-torn nation. Another important function that Australian soldiers are doing in Afghanistan is mentoring of Afghan National Army. Together with Dutch troops, Australian defence force personnel are providing security to the local population. Pakistan government is also assisting Australia to carry out its role in Afghanistan in terms of logistics support and transit facilities to Australian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Uruzgan province.
During his recent visit, General Tariq Majid’s talks with the former Australian Minister for Defence were very successful. In these talks, the Defence Minister shared the information that the Australian Defence Force is working with the Pakistan Military on a number of counter insurgency training initiatives both in Australia and Pakistan. Thanking Australian government, General Tariq responded by saying that Pakistan appreciates the role played by Australia as part of the coalition forces in Afghanistan. He further emphasised that Pakistan and Australia have ‘common interests and shared objectives’ in promoting peace and stability in the region.
Today, Pakistani Diaspora in Australia, a significant 20,000 in number, is basking in the warmth of these relations. But the journey is not yet finished. We have to continue working together for a future in which Pakistan is completely free of all the issues it is currently facing. Pakistan may be a small country but it is a vital country. It is vital for its strategic importance. It is vital for its mineral resources and it is vital for its beautiful, maiden landscape. It can not be neglected. It is this realisation that Australia participates in the Friends of Democratic Pakistan group which “seeks to help Pakistan address its security, development, energy and institution building challenges. Other members of the group are Pakistan, the United Kingdom, United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Turkey, the European Commission, the European Union and the United Nations”.
Let us hope that this mutual understanding increases and journey of assistance continues in the years to come.
FreeLance Journalist and