ISLAMABAD: Tensions with Afghanistan, faltering relations with the US, and chronically poor ties with India. Pakistan today stands isolated, observers say, and bringing it back into the fold is a formidable task for Prime Minister Imran Khan.
“We have a very big foreign policy challenge right now. If there is one country that needs peace and stability right now, it’s Pakistan,” PM Imran said in his victory speech after last month’s election.
Ties with the US cooled further in January when President Donald Trump accused Pakistan of ‘lies’ and ‘duplicity’ in the war on terror, suspending military assistance worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
PM Imran has repeatedly blamed Pakistan’s participation in the US-led anti-terror campaign for the surge in terrorism on home soil over the last decade. Now as premier, in a tone noticeably softer than his earlier anti-US comments,Imran has said he wants a “balanced relationship” instead of “fighting America’s war” in exchange for aid.
The cricketer-turned-politican has long advocated a negotiated settlement with militants – a commitment that led to criticism that he is soft on militants and earned him the nickname “Taliban Khan”.
If not in Washington, he may find a sympathetic ear in Kabul.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has also been pushing for talks with the Taliban, and offered a new, conditional ceasefire on Sunday.
“Imran Khan is very well positioned in building trust again with Afghanistan,” observed Huma Yusuf, an analyst at the Wilson Center in Washington. “He is seen as a fresh face with a credible voice.”
But given the current freeze with Washington, said Yusuf, Pakistan’s “drift from the US camp to the China camp will continue”
Beijing has long been Islamabad’s “all-weather friend”, and the strategic relationship was stepped up with the 2013 launch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure project that is part of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative.
The alliance is widely considered Pakistan’s most important, and Imran has vowed to strengthen it further. But CPEC deals are opaque, and amid fears about Pakistan’s ability to repay Chinese loans, his party has vowed more transparency.
“The new government will try to avoid any embarrassment linked with CPEC,” said Andrew Small, an expert on China-Pakistan relations.
The stakes are high as the premier’s nascent government must act quickly to avert a looming balance of payments crisis, and most analysts agree that Pakistan will need a loan from abroad.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has bailed Pakistan out repeatedly in recent decades, is one option. But Washington, its main contributor, has voiced concerns about Fund money being used to repay Pakistan’s debt to China, and could dictate strict terms.
Some in Pakistan have suggested Beijing itself could come to the rescue but Small warned there may be a limit to China’s largesse.
It is India which remains Pakistan’s biggest foreign policy challenge, however. But reaching out to New Delhi is a path fraught with risk for civilian leaders in Pakistan. Many analysts believe former premier Nawaz Sharif’s strong advocacy for better India ties earned him the wrath of the military.
It also prompted vociferous criticism from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chairman who accused Nawaz of trying to please India at the expense of Pakistan’s interests. He charged anti-India statements prompted many in both countries to predict that ties could suffer under his leadership.
“I was a little saddened by the way the Indian media portrayed me, as if I’m a villain in a Bollywood film,” the new PM acknowledged in his victory speech.