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An opportunity

March 21, 2017


PAKISTAN’S leaders often boast of our vital strategic geographical location. Yet this location has done little more than thrust the country into global wars and force it to become a proxy battleground for foreign ideological agendas. Pakistan now has an opportunity to turn this reality around courtesy of the profound geopolitical changes facing the world today.

There is increasing talk of a shift from America’s global hegemony to multipolarity and of a new emerging Great Game in which Washington is being challenged by aspiring competitors. Smaller states seldom have a chance to influence the direction of such hegemonic competition. But Pakistan finds itself suitably placed to force the great powers to be more cooperative and extract benefits for itself.

Geography is the principal enabler. Competition is most pronounced in the South China Sea, in Russia’s extended backyard, and in the Middle East. Each of these regions intersects with Pakistan’s neighbourhood, and herein lies the opportunity.

China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative is the poster child for Beijing’s willingness to prove its global mettle. CPEC is the quintessential test case whose success is necessary to convince China’s aspiring allies of its ability to lead independent geostrategic initiatives of serious consequence. This implies that Pakistan will be centre stage in Chinese foreign policy.

Pakistan can work the global chessboard in its favour.

Second, Russia is looking for new partners and markets to export arms. India’s tilt towards the US has provided Pakistan an opening to mend ties with Moscow.

Third, because of the Middle East chaos, the world is struggling to find geopolitically relevant Muslim country partners that can have a moderating influence in the Islamic world. Pakistan is an obvious candidate.

Finally, the presence of nuclear weapons on the subcontinent implies that the costs of a total blow-up of Pak-India ties or Pakistan’s implosion are prohibitive.

With some visionary thinking, Pakistan can work the global chessboard in its favour by bringing the US, China, Russia, among others, together on these issues. China will remain CPEC’s driving force but proactive outreach from Pakistan to identify options to involve the US, UK, and Russia more seriously could transform an initiative otherwise seen as one of the flagships of Sino-US competition in Asia into a cooperative one.

Likewise, the US, China, and Russia share concerns about Islamist extremism. Pakistan is seen as part of the problem but its recent domestic counterterrorism successes imply that it can present itself as a potentially stable Muslim country that can stand up to the onslaught of Salafi-inspired radicalism that is beginning to face pushback in Pakistan. The fact that Islamabad maintains deep ties with the Gulf/Middle East positions it well to play this role.

Further, the world’s shared interest in avoiding a Pak-India disaster implies the need for the great powers to keep Pakistan engaged. This militates against the Modi government’s self-stated policy to isolate Pakistan and leaves space open for continued relations between Pakistan and the great powers, even if India remains their preferred partner. This will require Pakistan to reconsider its foreign policy orientation in at least two respects.

Foremost, the Cold War mentality of putting all eggs in one basket still lingers in Pakistani thinking. The emerging global order will prize countries able to demonstrate their importance for all competing camps. The current discourse in Pakistan about Sino-Pak relations and improved Pak-Russia ties offsetting the deteriorating Pak-US equation is self-defeating in this regard. The US remains Pakistan’s largest export partner, it holds most influence over international donors that Pakistan relies on, and only it has the military, economic, and diplomatic tools to isolate Pakistan. No good can come of being on America’s wrong side.

Second, Pakistan’s role as a melting pot for great power cooperation requires a better-managed neighbourhood. The tendency to allow ties with India to drive the country’s global policy orientation and the nature of its ties with other important countries has hurt Pakistan. The smarter policy would be to isolate Pak-India problems from broader discussions about Pakistan’s relations with the great powers. Refusal of other countries to support Islamabad on Pak-India issues must not be allowed to overshadow the need to work with them to establish Pakistan’s utility as a key enabler of great power cooperation in and around the South Asian region.

Finally, the vision purported here is predicated on Pakistan’s internal strength. Economic and governance reforms that create opportunities for inclusive growth and stability remain crucial. So does the need for the state to consolidate counterterrorism gains and push ahead with the agenda to reverse the growing extremism in society. This implies the need to ensure zero tolerance for all terrorist outfits in the country.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2017