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Pakistani premier-to-be Nawaz Sharif gestures as he attends a meeting of traders during the election campaign in Islamabad on May 1, 2013. — Photo by AFP
Pakistani premier-to-be Nawaz Sharif gestures as he attends a meeting of traders during the election campaign in Islamabad on May 1, 2013. — Photo by AFP

ISLAMABAD: Dealing with security challenges and stabilising the ailing economy is set to drive incoming PML-N government’s foreign policy agenda.

Coming out of elections held under fears of terrorist attacks and preparing to take charge of a failing economy, Mian Nawaz Sharif’s core plan, according to his close aides, is to strengthen relations with long-standing friends, the United States, China and Saudi Arabia, resolve differences with India and Afghanistan and ensure democratic oversight of the foreign policy.

In his conversations with world leaders who had called him to congratulate on the victory of his party in the elections and in meetings with foreign envoys in Raiwind, Mr Sharif’s emphasis was on economic cooperation, trade and investment.

He is likely to carry the same message to his first international engagement – a meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang who is scheduled to visit Pakistan on May 23, days before he gets formally elected as prime minister, and on his probable visit to Riyadh which is also likely to take place before his inauguration.

His statements on the US, Afghanistan and India have been particularly seen as reassuring by the diplomatic community, which had initially looked wary because of his centre-right disposition.

Experts, therefore, don’t see any fundamental shift in the foreign policy operation, although the PML-N manifesto says it is committed to a thorough and comprehensive review of the security and foreign policies because Pakistan is “at war within, while isolated abroad and its independence and sovereignty compromised”.

A senior Pakistani diplomat said the country’s foreign policy was based “on national consensus and people’s aspirations” and expressed the hope that national interest would take precedence instead of domestic political considerations and related rhetoric.

Therefore, it is expected that there may be a slight shift in nuances and emphasis to cater for the new government’s priorities, but the overall outlook of the policy may remain unaltered.

Former foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmed agrees that there is no foreign policy problem as such. Rather, all problems being confronted by the country on the external front are mere extension of domestic failures rooted in bad governance. He said solutions were at home and not in Riyadh, London or Washington.

Renowned journalist Zahid Hussain doesn’t see any significant change either. “Socially, he (Mr Sharif) may look conservative and right of centre, but at the same time he represents the business class and in his last two tenures he fully cooperated with the US.”

Therefore, he said, economy and countering militancy and extremism should be Mr Sharif’s top priorities. “Other challenges are secondary.”

A Western diplomat, however, had a different opinion about US relations with the PML-N government. He said there were still misgivings in Washington and very few people had forgotten that the PML-N during its last tenure in Punjab had restricted the use of US aid.

Punjab government officials had been stopped from attending training programmes in the US, he recalled, adding that because of impending withdrawal from Afghanistan the US had no other option but to work with Mr Sharif.

Senator Mushahid Hussain, Chairman of Senate Standing Committee on Defence and Defence Production, would, however, like to evaluate Mr Sharif from a different angle.

Mr Hussain is waiting to see whether or not Mr Sharif continues with regional approach of the PPP government, including reset of ties with Russia, Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, independent policy on Syrian crisis and the position the PML-N government would take on Gwadar Port.

“Do these initiatives continue or (will) Mr Sharif succumb to pressure,” Mr Hussain asks.

There are rumours that Mr Sharif has suggested to Saudi Arabia that he may be open to reviewing the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and the position on Syria.

Mr Sharif is known for his close association with Saudi royal family. Riyadh, which over the past five years had lukewarm relations with the PPP government, may now help Pakistan in dealing with the energy crisis.

On China, former ambassador Hussain Haqqani says Beijing will keep its low profile, but high value engagement with Pakistan and Mr Sharif is certainly not going to disrupt it.

During his conversation with the Indian prime minister, Mr Sharif had expressed his commitment to working for improving bilateral ties. But, it’s clear to him, and his foreign policy aides, that no major breakthroughs are expected, particularly because of elections in India due next year.

Afghanistan is yet another difficult task that the PML-N government will have to deal with.