It could only happen in Pakistan. Despite being in the midst of pressing foreign policy challenges, the country went without a full-time foreign minister for over four years. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif could best justify this inexplicable approach because he was the one who ran the key ministry through an adviser.
But that loophole was finally plugged with the change of guard at the Prime Minister Office in August 2017, after Nawaz Sharif was sent packing by the Supreme Court over the Panama scandal. His successor, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi took no time in nominating Khawaja Muhammad Asif as the full-time foreign minister, a decision that won the applause from not just the opposition, but also the security establishment, which always has a major say in foreign policy.
The appointment of a full-time foreign minister may have broken yesteryears’ monotony but what remains constant are the herculean foreign policy challenges faced by the state.
Similar to recent years, 2017 also proved to be tumultuous and eventful in terms of Pakistan’s foreign policy.
The year began with uncertainty because of the unlikely election of Donald Trump as US president. Given Trump’s erratic and unpredictable nature, policymakers in Pakistan were on tenterhooks about what he had in store for South Asia and Afghanistan.
In August, when he finally unveiled his much-awaited strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia, it was evident that things would not remain the same. In the wake of Trump’s new strategy, senior US officials have kept mounting pressure on Pakistan to do more in the fight against terrorism.
The harshest comment came from US Vice President Mike Pence, who during his visit to Afghanistan, claimed that Trump had put Pakistan on notice. That prompted an unprecedented reaction from the country’s civil and military leadership alike. The army went public with its resentment and reminded the US that Pakistan had done enough and simply refused to do more. The verbal duel clearly reflected that despite diplomatic efforts, the two ostensible allies have failed to find a common ground on the endgame in Afghanistan.
Trump’s strategy for South Asia also complicated Pakistan’s already strained ties with India and Afghanistan. Emboldened by Trump’s approach, which endorsed Afghanistan and India’s views on Pakistan, the western and eastern neighbours continued to cast aspersions against Islamabad. Although some semblance of normalcy returned between Afghanistan and Pakistan in last few months, the two countries are far from developing the kind of relationship where they can trust each other.
If 2016 was a rough year for Indo-Pak relationship, 2017 was undoubtedly far worse as the relationship not only touched a new low but also saw an unprecedented spike in cross-border clashes between the nuclear neighbours.
In the absence of any bilateral engagement, the prospects of peace between the two countries seemed a distant dream. The two sides could not successfully facilitate and organise a hassle-free meeting between convicted Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav and his family. It was thought that Pakistan’s humanitarian gesture to welcome his family to visit would ease the hostilities, but the process further vitiated the atmosphere.
An upshot of 2017 was certainly Pakistan’s efforts to diversify its foreign policy options by reaching out to countries such as Russia. Islamabad’s diplomatic manoeuvres certainly paid dividends, as Russia and China were the first countries to stand in support of Pakistan after Trump hurled threats at Islamabad. The strategic partnership with Pakistan’s long-term friend China continued to deepen in the outgoing year. The ever-growing relationship with China was a major factor behind Pakistan staying immutable in the face of US pressure.
Pakistan’s relationship with Arab countries has always remained warm. However, the developing geostrategic environment has thrown new challenges to the country to manage its ties with the Arab world.
The year 2017 was testing in the sense that Pakistan had to resist Saudi Arabia’s pressure on the Qatar crisis, whereby five countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, laid siege on Qatar. Despite pressure from Riyadh, Pakistan decided not to take sides in the standoff between Qatar and the Gulf countries.
The trial of maintaining a delicate balance in its ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia has never been starker as has been in recent months. This task became even more arduous with Pakistan’s decision to join the Saudi coalition on counterterrorism.
However, Pakistan successfully managed to address Iran’s concerns and army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s visit to Iran in November 2017 was a watershed moment as the two countries reached a broader understanding on key regional and international issues.