It may not be inappropriate to say that, next to defending the geographical frontiers of the state, formulation and practice of a vibrant and transformational foreign policy is the most important ingredient for securing its interests. This is more so when the state is located in a turbulent region with a plethora of raging conflicts and long outstanding disputes. That is where the finest brains are required to chisel the contours of a progressive policy and communicate it to the world in an effective manner.
There are three fundamental requirements of a foreign policy:
- The first deals with taking cognizance of the routine developments in the world and making policies as an effective response.
- The second requirement is of a proactive nature. It comprises tailoring a specific policy or policies to project the interests of the state to the world in a manner that it moulds opinions to generate vast understanding and acceptability of the narrative.
- The third component deals with framing a quick response to emergent situations arising out of wars, quakes, floods, or other similar catastrophes.
While the first and the third requirements are routine, it is the second which is fundamental to creating an image of the state that would be desirable under given circumstances to take its narrative further. This is a permanent challenge for any foreign office which demands incessant involvement of its best brains to serve its policy interests.
There is an inherent connectivity between evolving dynamics and formulation of foreign policy. There may be some essential, consistent ingredients like quest for peace and economic and strategic security, but, otherwise, it is a flux, moving with changes which are constantly occurring in the neighbouring countries, the region, and the world.
In the existent regional context, there are five challenges that Pakistan faces, each requiring a foreign policy constituent to be handled:
- Afghanistan on the western border and the induction of the Taliban government.
Monumental changes have occurred in Afghanistan in the recent past with the former Ghani government routed in a seemingly bloodless surge by the Taliban. When the last plane took off from Kabul, they walked into the capital to re-stamp their authority on a country they had previously ruled till 2001. There were numerous factors which sealed the fate of one of the most inept administrations in recent times, but none more relevant than the plague of corruption having penetrated all echelons of the government. When the time came to put up a stand, a 300,000 strong military just wilted away into the dark without firing a shot. It is as if the army did not exist at all which makes it a mystery of modern times requiring an extensive probe. The SIGAR report would be a good document to begin with.
Pakistan has had a history of turbulent relations with its western neighbour from its very inception. Afghanistan was the only country which opposed its admission into the United Nations back in 1947 and the bilateral relations could never settle down to a level of normalcy. But the twenty years since the ouster of the Taliban regime by the U.S.-NATO onslaught were definitely the worst period in these relations which caused immense damage to the two countries as also their respective people. In connivance with the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), Afghanistan became the launching pad for carrying out terrorist activities inside Pakistan causing immense human and material losses. In spite of serious initiatives by Pakistan, Afghanistan remained evasive while the destabilising activities accentuated with time.
The Western world remains unwilling to deal with the Taliban government unless they live up to ensuring human rights and forming an inclusive government encompassing all stakeholders. In the meanwhile, and because of the flow of funds to Afghanistan having been blocked by the U.S. and international organisations and donor agencies, the depleting economic situation could lead to a humanitarian crisis. This is a huge challenge for the regional countries, more so for Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours, Pakistan being in the forefront of these countries. Good initiatives have been taken to forge a regional consensus to deal with the emerging crisis, with China and Russia playing a lead role alongside Pakistan. The crucial challenge is to sensitise the world to the emerging crisis and, instead of abandonment, facilitate international engagement with Afghanistan. There are some positives which have come forth, but there is a long way to go before the Western world would be able to get over its ‘change Afghanistan’ project which has already caused immense damage to the region over more than four decades of ceaseless and bloody conflict.
Pakistan is poised to playing a key role in cementing a regional consensus to deal with the emerging situation including the economic crisis, potential refugee influx, extending recognition to the Taliban government, and other attendant issues. It is a tall order and even a single slip can endanger the prospect of retrieval. It is a huge challenge that the Foreign Office faces at this delicate juncture. It is hoped that it will be able to surmount it, thus facilitating the advent of sustainable peace in Afghanistan and, consequently, connecting the countries of the region in a productive economic partnership for the benefit of all.
2. India on the eastern border and the outstanding problem of Kashmir.
India is the other problem that Pakistan inherited at its independence. In spite of a number of initiatives at multiple levels to improve relations, these have deteriorated with the passage of time. The two countries have also fought three wars. After the unilateral abrogation of Articles 370 and 35-A by India in August 2019 to annul the special status accorded to Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir(IIOJK), the two countries are possibly passing through the worst phase of their bilateral relations with apparently no avenues of dialogue open.
Living with a belligerent neighbour presents a huge challenge. With time, and having failed to resolve the outstanding disputes, principally Kashmir, the reasons for confrontation have only increased, thus adding unbearable toxicity to the environment. With respective positions having hardened further, the prospect of a breakthrough looks ever more remote now.
The acrimony is likely to be further incensed under the umbrella of the U.S.-led ‘contain China’ policy with India playing a key role because of its own issues with its neighbour. Now that the U.S. has withdrawn from Afghanistan where it had bases to keep a close eye on China, there will be further pressure exerted on India to play the proxy in the region.
On the other hand, China is Pakistan’s closest friend, with the two neighbours connected in a multiplicity of projects, most notably the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). There is also extensive strategic collaboration between the two countries. This is not approved by the U.S. which has consistently urged its non-NATO ally to downgrade these relations. Of course, that is not even a remote possibility as the bilateral relations continue to grow in multiple directions. With a fully operational Gwadar port, these relations will assume an altogether different dimension which may not sit well with the U.S. and its Western allies.
It appears that the region will likely splinter pitting Pakistan directly against India. With the former not in a position to serve the U.S. cause, the pressure on it is likely to mount which will push it closer to China, not away from it. Simultaneously, that will mean added pressure on India to do the U.S. bidding. Much will depend on its response. If India caves in, it will run the risk of regional alienation, possibly a level of confrontation also. Pressure will also be exerted on it for adopting a more aggressive stance in the South-China Sea where India is already linked with the U.S., Japan, and Australia as a partner in QUAD.
To add to India’s worries, it has lost a key support base in Afghanistan from where it was perpetrating terrorist activities into Pakistan. This will add to its frustration which may spur it to indulge in some risky manoeuvring, thus igniting the prospect of another conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
The Foreign Office has its plate full of possibilities and prospects in dealing with its eastern neighbour. Given India’s caustic combination of belligerence and its Hindutva ideology, one does not see any breakthrough in the foreseeable future. Simultaneously, the possibility of increased animus cannot be ruled out.
3. Relations with China and taking CPEC further.
CPEC has been a source of contention between Pakistan on the one hand and the U.S. and India on the other. With China’s unstinting support and immense economic potential that CPEC can unleash, Pakistan has remained steadfast in its commitment to taking it further.
Contrary to Pakistan’s relations with the US which have at best been transactional in nature, its relations with China are rooted in mutuality of interests and objectives. Economic connectivity is the driving force of these relations which encompass a comprehensive and vibrant strategic security partnership.
Here is another challenging situation for the Foreign Office: is there a possibility of finding common ground in Pakistan’s relations with the U.S. on the one hand and its relations with China on the other? If yes, how could Pakistan manoeuvre it to have both without compromising either? It is a huge challenge and, given the current nature of Pakistan’s partnership with China, a compromise seems untenable. Its relations with the U.S. will likely remain on a downward trajectory. This is further compounded because of the recent developments in Afghanistan which some of the policy-makers in the U.S. blame on Pakistan.
It may be a difficult situation, but compromising relations with China is not an option simply to appease the U.S. of its ill-conceived concerns. As a matter of fact, the U.S. has already found its partner in India to take its ‘contain China’ policy further. The die is cast with the U.S. having thrown its weight behind India, thus further incentivising its belligerence towards Pakistan.
It is appropriate that Pakistan should not only remain steadfast in its relations with China, it should also try to strengthen them further. These relations have grown in multiple ways in the past to the benefit of both neighbours, and there is no reason why the pace of expansion and improvement cannot be further accelerated in times to come. I am convinced that these relations will be the bedrock for this region to emerge as a bastion of connectivity stretching from China to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia, and Russia. This is the new strategic power corridor that I see emerging in due course of time that will be to the benefit of all countries of the region.
4. Impact of a fully-operational Gwadar on the economic outlay in the Gulf countries and its consequences for Pakistan.
A fully-operational Gwadar deep-sea port will change the dynamics of this region which may stretch to the Gulf countries and beyond. In fact, this is the reason why some of these countries may have already changed their outlook towards Pakistan. A discernible tilt in India’s direction is a palpable tactic to exert pressure on Pakistan to change course.
Not only that such a course change is beyond Pakistan’s reckoning, it also does not fit into its economic and strategic paradigm. It is vital that Pakistan should evolve into a country that is self-sufficient in meeting its needs from its own resources. Gwadar is a principal constituent of that effort. No one country can lay claim on monopolising resources around its location. The world works by shared interests and responsibilities.
In the process, Pakistan should take pre-emptive measures to deal with the situation that will progressively unfold corresponding with further work on Gwadar project. Pakistan will have to maintain a delicate balance in conducting a comprehensive reappraisal of old and important friendships that we have had with the Gulf countries. Obviously, Pakistan’s long-term interests cannot and should not be compromised if there is lack of understanding from the other side.
5. Shift in relations with the U.S. in the wake of change in Afghanistan.
The crisis in Afghanistan has had a damning effect on U.S.-Pakistan relations. In spite of a hefty investment that Pakistan has made in the past to nurture these relations, they seem to be in a nosedive in the aftermath of the induction of the Taliban government. In the process, the U.S. completely overlooks the role that it played itself in facilitating the change by signing the deal with the Taliban back in February 2020 together with giving the timeline for withdrawal of its troops from the country. Its presumption that the 300,000 strong military force it had created and armed would not allow the Taliban to take over proved to be criminally fallacious. In the end, the Taliban did not have to fire a bullet. They simply walked into Kabul when the last plane took off taking the Americans home.
An investment of over seventy years in building a relationship has ended up at the beginning again. I believe that the two countries need to engage in a multifaceted dialogue to reorient, even reinvent this relationship. It can no longer be a transactional one where one party is perceived as ‘using’ the other as long as there is a need, and then trashing it. This new phase, if and when negotiated and finalised, will have to be on the basis of accepting the inviolability of interests of both countries. It must also accept the freedom of each country to take initiatives that it may consider imperative for safeguarding and advancing its economic and security paradigm. This new bond should also sanctify the need for the two countries to work collectively to promote common interests and separately to advance interests which may suit them individually. There should be no compulsion from either side.
These are some of the key challenges that Pakistan faces at this juncture which require comprehensive policy formulations by the Foreign Office, particularly in the aftermath of the transition in Afghanistan which may continue generating additional issues in the foreseeable future.
The foremost test is for the Foreign Office to get out of the reactive mould. Even the thought of being forced into playing subservient to the interests of any other country should be banished. It must begin to think in terms of the ascendency of its foundational principles and its policies should be moulded strictly to advance them. It should cast off the albatross of obligations that it has worn for long. Any imposition from any other country or quarter should be resisted with the full faith of adherence to the internationally-recognised principles which are based on the irrefutable values of equity and equality among all nations.
Even more importantly, in these competitive times, Pakistan must begin preparing ground for taking its narrative to the world. Fire fighting and playing victimhood are not the best means to persist with. Policies should always be underwritten by clarity of purpose and the projected fundamental objectives. Appropriate strategies should be formulated accordingly to promote them to the world for garnering acceptance and traction.
We must remember that the world will not come to us. It is our responsibility to disseminate our message to the world with courage and conviction.
Raoof Hasan is the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister of Pakistan on information, a political and security strategist, and the founder of the Regional Peace Institute.