The new government of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) with Prime Minister Imran Khan in the saddle has started settling down. Apart from numerous domestic policy and governance challenges, there are huge challenges on the foreign policy front for the new government as well. Whether it is improving extremely-strained relations with India, improving cold ties with the United States, playing critical role in war-ravaged Afghanistan, managing ever-growing cooperation with China, further entrenching relations with Saudi Arabia and starting a new chapter of interaction with Iran and Turkey — challenges on the foreign policy are quite complex, sensitive and delicate.

More importantly, keeping in view the sordid state of Pakistani economy, the PTI government’s foreign policy must be extremely dynamic to bring economic stability. In order to negotiate with these colossal challenges, Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government machinery would need great sagacity, tact and verve.

Immediate foreign policy challenges include having economic stability through increasing and diversifying exports, exploring new markets for Pakistani goods and human resource, thinking and pursuing out-of-the-box solution of war in Afghanistan and the image management of the new government and with it of the country.

It would be a miracle if the PTI government would somehow avoid the required bailout package from the IMF of $10-12 billion. This could only be possible if Saudi Arabia and China are wooed to provide stopgap financial aid. There are some positive indications from both the countries in this regard. PM Khan’s government must also engage with the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait for financial assistance.

Khan on several occasions in the last few years has been very clear-headed regarding Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan by calling for a totally off-hand Pakistani approach in Afghanistan. He has been advocating letting Afghans deal with their issues themselves. This is quite a meaningful approach if we read within the context. Pakistan’s unnecessary involvement in Afghanistan, especially after the withdrawal of the erstwhile USSR forces in 1989 has had brought misery after misery on Pakistan, including the world’s largest refugee population, surfacing of a madrassa and Kalashnikov culture and above all the rise of Pakistan Taliban groups after getting inspiration from the Afghan Taliban. So it remains to be seen how Khan now translates his words into actions by having an off-hand but a supportive role in Afghanistan.

The PTI government must give increasing importance to Pakistan’s relations with China, especially when Beijing is investing heavily in Pakistan within the framework of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. In the international situation as of now in which Pakistan is facing somewhat diplomatic isolation with a near-crippled economy, relations with China becomes critically significant. However, overdependence on one country has always been a sign of weak foreign policy.

Khan during his policy speech after the PTI victory had said that his government would like to have “mutually beneficial” relations with Washington, which must be on a balanced plank. Both the countries have been complaining of the other doing less than its expectations. In this situation, a mutually beneficial relationship between Washington and Islamabad is the most apt term to be used. The fact of the matter is that the inter-state relations ideally must be mutually beneficial but in the real world situation it is not always possible to achieve the same. Since mutual benefits cannot always be quantified, it would be great that Pakistan must first have a realistic reassessment of its foreign policy objectives vis-à-vis the US. Then these objectives must be articulately and unequivocally conveyed to Washington. At the same time, the new government must ask Washington what it really wants of Islamabad and to what extent its objectives are realistic. This would set the grounds for a new era of relations with Washington and it is not that difficult. It only requires political will and visionary leadership. Khan meets the criteria.

Generally, Indian media has not welcomed the victory of the PTI and Khan, and some of the Indian media outlets dubbed it a triumph of the ally of anti-India, Pakistani suspected militant Hafiz Saeed and his organisation, Lashkar-e-Taiba. But at the same time the hardliner Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Khan and extended his felicitations on the PTI’s victory. Noticeably, it came after Khan, in his victory and policy speech, stated that if India would come one step forward, he would respond with two steps. Hopefully if Khan displays leadership qualities and Modi also responds positively, ties between the two countries could improve as it is in the larger interest of Pakistan and the region. However, it is not that simple either.

PM Khan termed Saudi Arabia of vital importance for Pakistan. Khan previously had some issues with the kingdom due to his opposition in the previous parliament to send Pakistani troops to the restive Yemen as desired by Riyadh. However, it seems that Riyadh has ignored this action by Khan, and this indeed is a welcome move because it means that Riyadh understands the sensitivity of Pakistan’s foreign policy, especially regarding Muslim states.

Khan in his policy speech mentioned Iran as of vital importance for Pakistan too and stated that his government would like to further strengthen the relations with Tehran. There is a huge margin of improvement of relations between the two countries, especially in the sphere of economic intercourse.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 26th, 2018.

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