Hamzah Rifaat Hussain
In 2018, the world witnessed the rise of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf with its Chairman Imran Khan becoming the Prime Minister of the country. With a new, untested government in Islamabad, foreign policy challenges are a key mooting point given that they continue to persist. However, the daunting challenges are not unsurmountable. Deteriorating relations with India and Afghanistan and the swirling ride with Washington add to the woes of the country. Pakistan is strategically significant yet continues to be frustratingly fragile, both economically and politically. Therefore, the situation is not ordinary and neither can one expect it to be.
There is considerable optimism though. The new government believes in setting the tone right and mending fences to diffuse hostilities and forge good relationships. The all-weather relationship with China continues to grow stronger with CPEC projects gaining momentum despite the heinous attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi recently. With India, the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor was a positive step, allowing for softer diplomacy and softer power to break the ice between New Delhi and Islamabad. The Indo-Pak relationship continues to be marred by trading barbs, skirmishes on the Line of Control and the horrid situation in Occupied Kashmir, where casualty tolls continue to rise. In addition, Pakistan has made it clear that peace in Afghanistan has to be achieved at all costs and the ability of Islamabad to broker talks in Abu Dhabi between the American leadership and the Taliban has boosted Pakistan’s reputation, particularly in Washington D.C. which has long held the suspicion that efforts at tackling terrorism or countering extremist groups have been based on dualism and lack of sincerity. With various US officials expressing their interest in dealing with Pakistan despite Trump’s tweets and unreasonable castigation, the relationship between the US and Pakistan on the Afghan front has the potential to significantly improve.
A dynamic foreign policy however, with lesser reliance on China is the need of the hour. These are testing times as Islamabad looks to shed off its debt and aims at reviving its economy through stringent measures proposed by the IMF. Tackling bureaucratic corruption and a strong sense of accountability will allow Pakistan to polish up its profile internationally and open up avenues for engagement with various countries. The relationship with the Donald Trump administration for example, is of utmost significance given that it is inextricably linked with Pakistan’s Afghan policy as well as the state of the domestic economy. The challenge for the new government however, would be to go beyond the recklessness and knee-jerk policy overtures of Washington D.C. and use its leverage for its national interests as was the case with brokering talks between the Afghan leadership and the Taliban just before the end of 2018. Given that Afghanistan continues to be torn apart by warlordism, feuds and the presence of the Islamic State in the Khorasan province, Pakistan cannot afford to solely focus on cultivating close ties with the Taliban which Kabul has long accused of being Pakistan’s proxy in the country at the expense of the Afghan government. Through imaginative decision making and a strong leadership at the center, Pakistan can balance off various stakeholders in Afghanistan and ensure a holistic and all inclusive solution to the country through democratization, nation building, counter terrorism and sustainable peace initiatives. These aims coincide with American interests and allow both countries to focus on trade which is critical for Pakistan’s economy.
In the modern era, international relations are determined by trade, investments and economic profiles of the respective countries who are in a bilateral relationship. China and India, despite long standing tensions, have normalized relations by focusing on economics, consumerism and trade. The Saudi Arabia-United States relationship is another example of how corporate interests trump other considerations such as human rights abuses or the killing of journalists such as Jamal Khashoggi. The relationship between Washington and Riyadh is dominated by oil and countering Iran’s influence in the region. While the ethics of such an approach can be heatedly debated, the truth is that Pakistan is encountering a situation where its foreign policy and its economic profile need to go hand in hand. Nations are looking to expand with trade, arms sales, corridors and development of road infrastructure and ports. Economics also has the ability to normalize relations which would otherwise be mired in suspicion and hostility as the Sino-Indian trade relationship has clearly demonstrated. This becomes particularly relevant for Pakistan as it has often been viewed as a security state which harbors extremist groups and is a threat to regional stability. Such an image can be greatly revamped if domestic economic conditions are improved and talking trade becomes the rhetoric from Islamabad.
Another important if not indispensable aspect of Pakistan’s foreign policy is its relationship with its western neighbor, Iran. Iran’s relationship with Pakistan since developments such as Saudi Arabia’s aid package and the abduction of Iranian revolutionary guards has greatly soured ties since 2013, when talk of TAPI and the gas pipeline was gaining considerable momentum. While Pakistan would wish to distance itself from Iran in light of international sanctions being imposed on it, estrangement with Tehran could also have long term consequences. So far, the emphasis from the new government in Islamabad has been to further strengthen its relationship with China and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have provided substantial aid for financial relief. Given that Pakistan has borne the brunt of Shia-Sunni proxy warfare and advocates for dialogue to resolve the crisis in the Muslim World, taking Iran on board for key policy considerations, along with Saudi Arabia is imperative. This would further cement Pakistan’s stated policy of neutrality and counter its image as a Pro- Saudi country where it has backed Riyadh on key issues such as the Yemen crackdown, the Syrian Crisis as well as countering Shia influence in South Asia. Balancing its policy objectives would hence, be the key.
All in all, 2019 promises a great deal for Pakistan, yet its foreign policy needs to center on using economics as a tool for building trade relations and play a constructive role in the region as well as in the global community. Only then, would the ghosts of 2018 and before be laid to rest and relations with each of the important players on the global chessboard improve.
Hamzah Rifaat Hussain is a Lecturer at the Air University, Islamabad.