UNLIKE its daunting domestic objectives, Pakistan’s external agenda, though challenging, is fairly clear. And, although overstretched, Islamabad has the capacity in its Foreign Service and the ‘security establishment’ to address this agenda.
Building the Pakistan-China strategic partnership: China has the strategic motivation and financial, technological and weapons capabilities to help Pakistan emerge as a militarily strong and economically dynamic state. The substance and depth of the future strategic partnership will depend mainly on the ability of the Pakistan government and its private sector to conceive and execute cooperative projects and ventures with China. A special entity dedicated to timely and efficient implementation of CPEC could be decisive in realising its full potential.
Managing Sino-US rivalry: The Trump administration has designated China as a strategic competitor and opposes China’s Belt and Road Initiative including its flagship, CPEC. The US diplomatic and media onslaught against China and CPEC has intensified. In fact, China’s investment and infrastructure building can help stabilise the entire South Asian region including Afghanistan. With growing indications that Donald Trump wants a hurried withdrawal from Afghanistan, agreement on the role China can and should play in stabilising the region must become a priority for Pakistan’s regional diplomacy.
Pakistan should revive its traditional leadership role in the Muslim world.
Afghanistan: Pakistan and US positions appeared to converge recently as the US belatedly accepted the need for a political settlement in Afghanistan and opened direct talks with the Afghan Taliban which Pakistan facilitated. However, the entire negotiating process, including the one initiated by US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, may be thrown in disarray by Trump’s announcement to withdraw 7,000 US troops from Afghanistan. Sensing US abandonment, and under unrelenting Taliban pressure, the Kabul ‘unity’ government, even the Afghan National Army, may collapse, reviving the likelihood of another prolonged civil war.
Pakistan’s diplomacy must work simultaneously with the US and China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia to prevent civil war and promote a viable political settlement in Afghanistan. A conference involving these states and major Afghan parties could be convened to draw up the broad parameters of such a settlement.
Pakistan-US: In Trump’s ‘America First’ environment, there is a growing ‘Washington Consensus’ against China, Russia and the Muslim world, including compliant ‘allies’. The US has been reluctant to acknowledge Pakistan’s cooperation on Afghanistan and continued to adopt punitive measures against it. If the US leaves Afghanistan without a political settlement, it may feel free to take further action against Pakistan. Islamabad needs to negotiate the structure of its future ties with the US in tandem with arrangements for US troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. After America’s exit, Pakistan’s leverage will be diminished.
Kashmir and India: It is evident that Imran Khan, the PTI government and Pakistan’s army chief desire normalisation with India. This sentiment is not reciprocated, although Pakistan’s unilateral gesture of opening the Kartarpur corridor put New Delhi temporarily on the defensive. In the run-up to the 2019 Indian elections, the Modi government may seek to revive its flagging political fortunes by generating hostility against Pakistan, or even ‘limited’ military action, on some cooked-up pretext. Pakistan must remain vigilant and defeat any aggressive move.
Normalisation with India is highly unlikely so long as it continues its oppression in occupied Kashmir and refuses to resume a comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan. To defend Kashmiris’ fundamental rights, Pakistan must launch an international diplomatic and media campaign to project and condemn India’s human rights violations in occupied Kashmir (confirmed and documented in the recent report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights).
Terrorism: India’s campaign to portray Pakistan as a sponsor of ‘terrorism’ is designed to constrict Islamabad’s ability to advance its national security and economic development goals. Fortunately, this campaign, although supported by the US, has failed so far. Pakistan must kill it. To this end, it could: 1) fulfil its obligations under relevant UNSC resolutions (placing required restraints on designated entities and persons); 2) insist on elimination of the BLA and TTP presence from Afghanistan in the context of an Afghan political settlement, and 3) launch a diplomatic and media campaign to project India’s state-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir and from Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Saudi Arabia and Iran: The government has, by force of circumstance, revived Pakistan’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Their financial support is essential at present to keep the economy afloat. The future commercial viability of Gwadar (and CPEC) depends to a considerable extent on its emergence as the oil and gas transshipment centre and a petrochemical complex. This will become feasible if Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies route a part of their oil, gas and refined product exports through Gwadar to China.
Pakistan should resist the urge to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran, at least for now. Pakistan’s ties with Iran are vital and Saudi-Iranian reconciliation is essential for regional peace and stability. However, the US and Israel are likely to subvert mediatory efforts. Riyadh is vulnerable to US pressure at this time. Pakistan still has issues to resolve with Iran including the reported presence of RAW operatives on its soil and cross-border incidents eg the recent attack on the FC patrol.
Economic diplomacy: Pakistan’s diplomats and embassies should play a larger role in promoting trade and investment. But Pakistan must first be able to produce goods and services it can export and create the economic environment conducive for foreign investment.
Islamic world: Pakistan should revive its traditional leadership role in the Muslim world which confronts multiple challenges. An initiative to provide humanitarian support to Muslims in occupied territories and war zones could be a worthy initiative.
Global challenges: Nor should Pakistan discard its traditional leadership role at the UN and other international fora. Although by population Pakistan is the sixth largest country, it has been excluded from most groupings of the powerful — G20, BRICS, APEC, etc. Yet, by this very token, Pakistan is well placed to lead the vast majority of developing countries, which have also been excluded from these ‘elite’ groups, and ensure their voices are heard on global issues like climate change, development and disarmament.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2018