Pakistan’s quest for a foreign policy

Lack of strategic clarity and regional realignments is taking a toll on the quality of Pakistan’s foreign relations

The writer is Chairman of the Senate Defence Committee


For the first time in history, Pakistan’s relationship with all its four neighbours face serious challenges, ranging from conflict and confrontation to question-marks.

Lack of strategic clarity and regional realignments, coupled with incessant internal strife and unending political instability, with Pakistan having 7 prime ministers in the past 7 years during 2017-2024, are starting to take a toll on the quality and focus of Pakistan’s foreign relations. What are the contours of the emerging realignments in the countries bordering Pakistan?

First, India is outflanking Pakistan by developing strategic outreach to both Iran and Afghanistan, seizing the opportunity that has emerged for India given Pakistan’s troubled ties with both its Western neighbours. India has signed a deal with Iran to maintain and run the Chahbahar port, which is in close proximity to Gwadar. Concurrently, the Taliban regime in Kabul has done its first major foreign investment by investing $35 million in the Chahbahar port, which Afghanistan now sees as its principal potential outlet to the sea.

Second, Pakistan, in the last five years has had military clashes with 3 out of its 4 neighbours. In February 2019, Pakistan responded befittingly to Indian aggression, while in 2024, Pakistan has had brief military clashes on its borders with Iran and Afghanistan respectively. Interestingly, with all these three neighbours, Pakistan’s borders are electronically fenced.

Third, for the first time in 50 years, Pakistan and China have developed divergence on a strategic regional issue, namely Afghanistan. China has extended de facto recognition to the Afghan Taliban regime, with whom it has a friendly rapport, and Beijing has also emerged as the biggest foreign investor in Afghanistan. Their investment in mining alone is going to total $4.5 billion!

Conversely, Pakistan views the regime in Afghanistan as “hostile” and apparently shares the Western perspective of pressurising and isolating the Kabul regime. In the May 17 joint statement issued between China and Russia after the visit of President Putin to Beijing, the formulation on Afghanistan leaves no doubt that China has now taken a strong public position in support of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Referring to Afghanistan, the China-Russia joint statement holds “the United States and NATO as the responsible parties for the 20-year invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, should not attempt to deploy military facilities in Afghanistan and its surrounding areas again but should bear primary responsibility for Afghanistan’s current economic and livelihood difficulties, bear the main cost of Afghanistan’s reconstruction and take all necessary measures to unfreeze Afghanistan’s national assets”.

The new cold war unleashed by the US against China in Asia has taken a more aggressive form, with southwest Asia as a key theatre of contention. Media reports suggest the US is keen to revive security cooperation with Pakistan, seeking drone bases, enhanced intelligence presence and access to Air Lines of Communications (ALOCs), hence the China-Russia joint statement’s pointed reference to ‘US attempt to deploy military facilities in Afghanistan’s surrounding areas’.

To counter China’s BRI, of which CPEC is the pillar and flagship, the US has tried to launch a number of copycat initiatives ranging from Build Back Better World (B3W), now rebranded as Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) initiative. Not to be left behind, the EU has launched their own copycat version of BRI, calling it ‘Global Gateway’. And yet another copycat initiative of BRI was announced at the G-20 Summit last year in Delhi called India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), which is now thankfully buried under the rubble at Gaza.

Despite fencing of the three troubled borders, governance in Pakistan has become so inept that Pakistan is somewhat akin to a ‘soft state’, a country whose internal security and counter-terrorism challenges are inextricably intertwined with regional geopolitics. The TTP is based in Afghanistan, the Baloch separatists, BLA, BRA and BRF, are based in Iran, while India has brazenly committed 20 assassinations on Pakistani soil in the last four years. So resolution of these issues of counter-terrorism and internal security have become interlinked with better ties with neighbours, more so, in the absence of an effective and coherent counter-terror strategy in Pakistan. One of the key challenges emerging for Pakistani policymakers is the China-US rivalry. Pakistan needs to clearly understand the difference and distinction in the substance of its relationship with China and the US respectively.

China is our strategic partner over the past several decades which has steadfastly stood by Pakistan like a rock on all our core interests on all occasions.

Conversely, the US is now a tactical partner whose regional worldview is shaped by two key goals, both detrimental to Pakistan’s core interests: promoting India as the regional hegemon to advance US interests; and containing China through its strategic partnership with India. Given this new reality, any dithering on Pakistan’s part would grievously damage Pakistan’s national security.

For strategic clarity in Pakistan’s foreign policy, three concrete steps should be in order.

First, the restoration of confidence in relations with China has to be the primary objective of the forthcoming visit of the Prime Minister to China. This confidence has been shaken by successive attacks on Chinese personnel and projects in Pakistan in the past five years, resulting in the death of 17 Chinese citizens, besides 13 Pakistanis. Pakistani leaders need to convince China about its sincerity and capacity to fulfil the two promises that Pakistan made to China when CPEC was launched 10 years ago, namely, provision of foolproof security and ensuring a one-window operation that would cut through the bureaucratic red-tape facilitating ease of doing business.

Second, Pakistan badly needs a Regional Reset in ties with the other three neighbours, by bidding goodbye to the ‘bunker mentality’ and a security-centric mindset, to an opening up of borders for trade and economic interaction based on geo-economic connectivity. This would require Afghanistan to be brought into CPEC, building of the Iran-Pakistan pipeline on which different Pakistani governments have given solemn commitments and engaging India in regional economic connectivity through the TAPI pipeline.

Third, Pakistan, under no circumstances, should be lured by the US in another new Great Game in our vicinity as that would be a recipe for disaster.

After 42 years of war in next-door Afghanistan, Pakistan has now gotten Strategic Space, a window of opportunity to promote peace and coexistence in this troubled neighbourhood. It would be tragic if this becomes another missed opportunity.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 24th, 2024.

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