THE new PTI-led coalition government will not be amateurish in foreign policy affairs as some of its winning candidates are vastly experienced and eminently qualified to handle Pakistan’s external relations. What remains to be seen, however, is the extent to which the new government would be willing to prioritise and actively lead the country’s external affairs. In any case, it will have to come up with a clear approach towards China.
Foreign policy and strategic affairs have traditionally remained a difficult area between civilian governments and the security establishment, and have always been a source of friction between them. Even if they cede much of their control over foreign strategic affairs to the security establishment, civilian governments cannot run away from international diplomatic stresses, mainly caused by Pakistan’s complicated position on different regional issues as well as the alleged presence of non-state violent groups on its soil. What makes things more complicated in this changing world is the fact that the economy, foreign policy and security affairs are no longer seen as separate strands; they constantly cut across each other’s domains.
The PPP government of 2008-13 and the recent PML-N government had to work hard and be in sync with the security establishment on foreign policy matters. Still, this area proved to be a key irritant and disturbed the country’s civil-military balance. The PTI will not find itself in a different place either.
The party may not find it too difficult in the beginning because there is a perception that it has won the confidence of the establishment over the past five years; Imran Khan’s advisers on foreign affairs are also seen to concur with the establishment line. However, Khan’s first challenge will come on the eve of the United Nations General Assembly meeting later this year, which could bring the issue of non-state actors into the global limelight and thus distract Pakistan from highlighting the Kashmir issue. He may handle things, though only for a while, with his usual rhetoric, but the Financial Action Task Force’s winter 2018-19 meetings could frustrate him.
The PTI government will still have to contend with institutional wrangling over foreign policy.
Strategically speaking, Pakistan’s political governments’ role in the country’s relations with the US, and to some extent with Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, has been a limited one; but China will be a different story because of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and China’s emerging role in Pakistan’s socioeconomic transformation.
The PTI and Imran Khan have not enjoyed a cosy image in China mainly for two reasons. First, the party’s prolonged protest sit-in in 2014, that allegedly delayed a visit by the Chinese, and its reservations regarding CPEC had annoyed many in China. The PTI-led Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s initial response towards CPEC projects created doubts in Beijing. Second, many in China view the PTI’s popularity among the Pakistani diaspora in North America and Europe with misgiving. The PTI has announced it will hire talented overseas Pakistanis as consultants in its government. Academic circles in Beijing see this as an indicator of the extent of the West’s influence on the PTI leadership.
While the Chinese embassy in Islamabad has issued a statement that it is ready to work with the future government, the PTI has appeared uneasy about its relationship with China. The party, it seems in an effort to build trust with the Chinese, set up an internal Pakistan-China Cooperation Unit a week before the general election. In its manifesto, too, the PTI has emphasised its desire to take friendship with China to new heights.
The Chinese, however, are pragmatic in their approach to the incoming government. They had experienced a similar situation in Sri Lanka, when the United National Front for Good Governance — which was not comfortable with China’s investment in major infrastructure projects in the country — came to power. But both sides successfully developed a new working mechanism. Repairing his party’s image in the eyes of the Chinese may not be a huge task for Imran Khan; the security establishment can also help in that regard. However, CPEC itself would be an uphill task for his government.
The first challenge will be linked to the ownership of the mega development projects. Reportedly, the establishment wanted the PML-N government to set up a CPEC authority, but the latter had resisted. A similar controversy erupted when a Special Security Division was established to provide security to Chinese personnel working on CPEC-related projects. The government perceived it as an attempt to control civilian law-enforcement agencies. The PML-N government had shown apprehension at the time, but it was under heavy stress with the fallout of the Panama Papers scandal and did not resist much. Khan can learn from the previous government’s experience.
Average Pakistanis are bearing the maximum security cost as Nepra had “allowed power producers to charge consumers through tariff one per cent cost of 19 power projects worth $15.56 billion under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor ... for 20-30 years”. More recently, under the caretaker government, the Central Power Purchasing Agency Guarantee has sought a 71-paisa per unit increase in the tariffs of distribution companies, effective June 2018, to cover CPEC security costs. Such developments cause concern in Beijing, which thinks this can create mistrust among the masses regarding CPEC and China.
The issue of non-state actors can be another irritant in the new government’s relationship with China. This would be the biggest challenge for Khan. The presence of any non-state actors in the country will only result in more pressure on Pakistan from Washington and regional capitals — this would mean that the new government would have to take a position on certain issues linked to external and strategic affairs. Imran Khan’s real test will be to balance between these external pressures and his relationship with the security establishment in the country.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2018