THIS week, India and Pakistan lost yet another opportunity to break the ice and initiate dialogue when the prime ministers of both countries attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Bishkek.
The incumbent Pakistani government has offered India an olive branch on many occasions, only to add to Indian intransigence. This further strengthens the perception that India’s only present strategy is to isolate Pakistan diplomatically. In a changing world, India is determined to make it difficult for Pakistan to play a major role in emerging global and regional alliances. However, the deepening China-US trade battle and the threat of protectionism, among other factors, are influencing the political order in Asia too, where India is itself struggling to strategise its roles and alliances.
Pakistan’s current dilemma is that, due to worsening economic and political crises, it finds itself constrained to play a proactive role in emerging regional geopolitics. The political capital it invested in Afghanistan has only earned it the role of influencing the Afghan Taliban to engage in peace talks. Past policies of supporting non-state actors proved counterproductive.
Pakistan is facing three immediate challenges on the foreign policy front. First, the growing US-Iran confrontation will not only drag Pakistan into the geopolitical turf of the region and Middle East but also test its ability to balance its ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Second, in the ongoing China-US trade war, Pakistan will also find it difficult to maintain a balance in its ties with these countries, even sustain a minimum level of engagement with the US. Third, and perhaps the biggest challenge, is that India appears set to add to Pakistan’s difficulties, including through the use of the ‘terrorism’ pretext, to try to push it out of South Asia. Add the Afghanistan-India equation to this mix and the challenge is further complicated.
India is determined to undermine Pakistan’s role in emerging global and regional alliances.
With India topping the list, the US has apparently already excluded Pakistan from its list of allies in South Asia. Recently, the media quoted a report released by the US Department of Defence that considered Pakistan an ally of China. Therefore, the report said, the US is ready to partner with all other South Asian nations except Pakistan to counter Chinese and Russian influences. With the exception of India, these do not have any significant political and strategic ambitions to connect strategically to the US; their need for economic engagement with the US also does not come with strings attached. Pakistan and the US have had a complicated relationship for decades, which are unique in many contexts, but it has currently been put to a huge test.
US actions in South Asia are certain to be led by its strategic alliance with India, which wants to isolate Pakistan at any cost. The so-called Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, which is projected as an alternative to Saarc, is India’s attempt to push Pakistan out of South Asian geo-economics and geopolitics. However, it remains to be seen how India can make it effective as it is already facing problems. Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Nepal have recalibrated their relationships with China in order to diversify their geo-economic options.
Pakistan’s three key challenges are not linear, but manifold and complex. Besides having implications for Pakistan’s internal security and economy, these challenges also make it difficult for the country to navigate the turbulent regional geo-economics and effectively set its future political and strategic direction.
If the Indian hunt and the US pressure continue, Pakistan will be forced to navigate its geopolitical direction towards countries in its west and north, which are rife with conflicts. The geo-economic prospects of these countries — from Iran and Afghanistan to Central Asian nations — are not enviable due to a variety of security and politico-economic reasons. The entire region’s political stability is linked with the realisation of transnational energy projects like Tapi and IP, which can create interdependencies among them at a level where misadventures become costlier. Pakistan’s strengths in such projects are linked to its being an end-user and transit country for energy projects, as well as a source of security through facilitating peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban.
On a certain level, many in Pakistan have desired a northwest drift in the country’s foreign relations on the grounds of identity and ideological roots. With a deepening engagement with China and some Middle Eastern nations, a new segment of the power elites is growing in strength which is not as pro-West as traditional power elites have been. There are also voices within important institutions that support a broader engagement with the free world, call for resolving problems with neighbouring countries peacefully, and that want an enhanced focus on the country’s economic, social and scientific strengths.
Objectively speaking, Pakistan has enormous opportunities to form geo-economic blocs in its northwest. For one, the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation has the potential to be converted into an effective geo-economic partnership. The Carec programme is a partnership of 11 countries (Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), whose long-term vision is: ‘Good Neighbours, Good Partners, Good Prospects’.
Notwithstanding developments in its northwest, Pakistan should not allow itself to be forced out of South Asia, which not only has enormous trade and connectivity potential but also extreme strategic significance for the country. China also sees more potential in connecting CPEC to South Asia because it believes that CPEC’s growth potential would be much higher if connected with this region than with Pakistan’s conflict-ridden northwest. China also thinks that economic and trade connectivity in South Asia will reduce regional tensions.
But China will have to invest more in reducing tensions in South Asia if it wants to maximise the advantages of the BRI and CPEC initiatives. China’s proactive diplomatic role to reduce tension between India and Pakistan will benefit it most. Geo-economic advantages cannot be maximised without investing in geopolitics.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2019