Pakistan's Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz returns this week from a tour of the Far East. This follows his revelation about how the country is seeking to become a full dialogue partner with the Association of South East Asian Nations.

"With the Association of South East Asian Nations [Asean], while our relationship is growing, we want to become a full dialogue partner, and that would mean political, economic and cultural links would strengthen even further" this was how Aziz revealed Pakistan's interest in closer ties with South East Asia, after an hour-long meeting with Abdullah Badawi, Malaysia's prime minister.

Aziz's trip also takes him to Brunei, Singapore and Thailand in a bid to seek wider relations with some of the world's most robustly growing and prospering economies. Consequently, Pakistan hopes, once it becomes a full dialogue partner with Asean which has a reputation of being host to the Asian tigers Islamabad's economic prospects would improve sharply.

Some of the signs of fresh cooperation with Malaysia are already beginning to bear fruit. For instance, Pakistan and Malaysia are on track to eventually sign a free trade agreement, while Malaysia has announced its intention to recruit up to 100,000 Pakistani labourers.

Good moment

This means Pakistan's capacity to generate more remittances from its expatriates could well improve in the coming years. There are also the prospects for additional trade and investments between the two countries.

On the pattern of this arrangement with Malaysia, Pakistan could seek similar partnerships with other countries in the Far East in the hope of lifting its economic prospects.

It is a good moment for Pakistan to head in this direction, in view of the recent upturn in its economic prospects, with indicators such as overall economic growth rate and liquid foreign currency reserves, heading upwards at an unprecedented pace.

Closer ties with members of Asean must also involve facing up to a set of important challenges. however. This list of challenges must be topped by resolving the kinds of internal frictions typical to Pakistan frictions which were settled by countries in the Far East years ago.

The recurring uncertainty in Pakistan due to the country's internal political divide only promises to discourage prospective investors, especially those keen to take a long-term stake. As long as Pakistan's political conditions remain unsettled, overseen by one political faction after another, taking charge of the country every now and then, prospects for foreign investors including those from the Far East would remain potentially weak.

There are also unresolved issues tied to the economic and investment climate. Many investors heading to Pakistan often get struck by the wide gap between frequent claims from its leaders promising to reform the country and their failure to make it happen.

Towards this end, one of the most widely criticised areas remains the future of Pakistan's battered tax collection system. Frequent governments have promised to put an end to rampant corruption and widespread inefficiency where the collection of taxes is concerned.

Yet even today, there are only 1.1 million taxpayers in Pakistan a trickle for a country with a population of about 150 million. It is not surprising Pakistan's taxpayers often complain of being continuously under pressure, as they are the ones who bear much of the brunt for the government's efforts to increase tax collections.

Essential building block

Similarly, the quality of Pakistan's utilities continues to be a source of bitterness for the country's industrialists and businessmen. They are often under pressure to cope with continuously rising costs for inputs such as electricity and gas.

The rising cost of such inputs may in part be driven by global trends such as the worldwide rise in the cost of petroleum. Pakistan cannot, however, ignore its internal weaknesses through poorly managed utilities which often force the government to raise costs in order to reduce the losses of power and gas supply companies.

While Pakistan seeks to promote closer economic ties with countries in the Far East, it can benefit from the lessons of the economic turn-around in South East Asia. Countries which are members of Asean have much to offer in terms of lessons from their own reforms which made them much-sought-after destinations for many investors.

What Aziz has achieved for Pakistan's economic interests, through his visit to Malaysia and other countries of the Far East, has to be recognised as an essential building block in the effort to lay a foundation for the country's journey towards greater prosperity.

The writer is a Pakistan-based journalist.