Hard balancing act

Published May 18, 2021

FOREIGN MINISTER Shah Mahmood Qureshi has told his US counterpart Antony Blinken that Pakistan desires a broad-based and comprehensive partnership with America. In his second telephonic conversation with Secretary of State Blinken, Mr Qureshi emphasised that Pakistan wanted ties based on “close economic cooperation, enhanced regional connectivity and common vision for a peaceful South Asia”.

The two senior officials also discussed the situation in Afghanistan in the wake of the US announcement of withdrawal of troops by September this year. Mr Qureshi emphasised the importance of “responsible withdrawal” of the US and other foreign forces from Afghanistan and noted that reduction in violence, a permanent ceasefire and securing an inclusive, broad-based and comprehensive political settlement were “indispensable”. This was the second phone call between him and Mr Blinken since the Biden administration took office. However, the first call between the two was dominated by the release by the Pakistani courts of Omar Shaikh who was accused of involvement in the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Mr Blinken had previously spoken to army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and the conversation was reported to have focused primarily on Afghanistan.

Read: US pullout from Afghanistan a test for Pakistan, other neighbours

The Qureshi-Blinken call comes at an important time in Pakistan-US relations. The new US administration is in the process of reducing its footprint in the region with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan has in recent years invested heavily in its relationship with China especially through CPEC. At the same time, Pakistan has also paid special attention to consolidating its ties with Russia. This has led to deeper engagement between Islamabad and Moscow that was evidenced by the recent visit to Pakistan of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Defence cooperation between the two countries has also seen an upswing with joint defence exercises now a regular feature. This, however, makes for some tightrope walking for Pakistan as the US is now locked in a difficult relationship with both China and Russia.

Pakistan has traditionally enjoyed very close relations with both Washington and Beijing and now is the wrong time to start prioritising one over the other. It is therefore important that Pakistan strike the right balance in these ties and not attempt to strengthen one relationship at the expense of another. CPEC remains a vital project for Pakistan despite the opposition from the US. At the same time, Pakistan remains deeply invested in America on many fronts including the military, economic, social and educational spheres. The challenge for the PTI government is to facilitate the successful withdrawal of America from Afghanistan and partner with the US to ensure a smooth transition of power in Kabul, while at the same time keep strengthening its ties with China. This balancing act may not be easy, but it is necessary if Pakistan wants to maintain a healthy relationship with the two major powers.

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2021

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