National and International Issues

Pakistan’s Foreign Policy at Crossroads

Pakistan was named as one of the nine pivotal states whose future evolution would not only determine the fate of the South Asian region but also affect international stability, said historian Paul Kennedy. The emerging dynamics of the region are indicative of the same.

The power dynamics of the South Asian region is changing at an unprecedented pace. The emerging power assertiveness of China, the equation between Pakistan and China and perhaps Russia and a westward looking India, is bringing about a paradigm shift in the politics and power equation of the region. The Indo-US military alliance is also changing balance of power in the region. To add to all this is the new Iran, economically de-strangulated and displaying political pragmatism after a very long time. This becomes more significant in the backdrop of a very unstable Middle East, and a conflict entangled Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan after a very long time is showing independence of foreign policy. The policy of self-abnegation is changing. Pakistani foreign policy was always a story of constraints and compulsions, the shift is towards options and choices being exercised with caution. Pakistan is trying to balance its relationships both between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and also with China and the United States. The transition is not easy as expectations are of subservience but the response is an assertive and independent policy focusing more on the national interest of Pakistan than any other consideration. In the past, the U.S. especially has been looking more for submission and compliance than co-operation.


The new independence of action, yet to be recognized more fully is both refreshing and challenging. Some observers may think China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, in which Pakistan has emerged as a frontline state, is a contributing factor. Although it has changed the power and economic dynamics of the region that are a major trigger. It is Pakistan’s relation with China, Russia and Iran that will bring diversity and options in Pakistan’s foreign policy choices. These countries, if Pakistan plays its cards right, will give foreign policy decision independence to Pakistan. Pakistan is now moving away from the western bloc to the eastern side. On the other hand, Pakistan-Russia relations are also on the mend.

Pakistan for the last two decades has been embroiled in conflicts. It had to deal with both their operational dimensions and its aftermath. This continues to be the case.

The emerging new realities of the region that include the shifting of the economic fulcrum from the west to the east, is perhaps a very pertinent development. It may change the future prospects of Pakistan. It is of course CPEC, Pakistani commitment to tackle terrorism and corruption at all levels and Pakistan exercising restraint in the commitments it used to give to the Saudi Arabia in the past. Also a genuine display of desire by Pakistan to improve relations with Afghanistan and to contribute towards peace building in the conflict-torn country. 
Pakistan is gradually progressing towards better regional dynamics. However, Pakistan-India relations continue to hamper progress. In fact, the recent revelation that include RAW’s involvement to sabotage the CPEC is indicative of Indian nefarious designs in the region. Soon after the launching of the CPEC, a special cell was established in the RAW with allocation of a huge sum of money amounting approx. $300 million to scuttle this mega-project.

To further add to this, the RAW is actively involved with pro-Indian Afghan Intelligence Agency NDS, by providing weapons, money, training and other logistical support for subversive activities in Pakistan. The recent apprehension and confessional video statement of RAW agent Kulbhushan Yadav, vindicates Pakistan’s position.

Pakistan-Afghanistan Relations
The Pakistan-Afghanistan relations are not a simple linear equation. They have been hostage to India’s maneuvering in Afghanistan. The regional proxy war between Pakistan and India in Afghanistan and the U.S. desire to counter Chinese and Russian influence in the region also complicate the situation. The U.S. constantly sends confused signals to Pakistan. Duplicity of action is more on the U.S. side. In the beginning of 2016, Chief of U.S. and NATO troops Lieutenant General Mick Nicholson categorically stated that targeting the Haqqani Network was no longer the focus of United States’ counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan, but later in the year the U.S. demanded the exact opposite from Pakistan. The Afghan policy on Taliban is also confused.

Pakistan is constantly criticized for cultivating Taliban leadership, the same is done by both Afghanistan and the U.S. behind Pakistan’s back. Indian involvement and the U.S. actions in Afghanistan lack transparency, complicating the conflict matrix of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations.

U.S. Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter in a recent meeting with senior Pakistani military leaders categorically said, “I must tell you, I am a friend of India. We try to be a trusted partner of India.” India in return for this endorsed the U.S. stand on South China Sea island dispute with China by reaffirming “importance of the freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region including the South China Sea.” The Indo-U.S. alliance is complicating the power equation of the region even more.

The Indian press has also reported that Ashton Carter has conveyed to the Indians that the U.S. has given up on Pakistani cooperation to stabilize Afghanistan and wants India to play a larger role there.

India-US Nexus
The US wants its trade with India to grow multifold and be close to the levels of U.S.-China trade. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Desai Biswal informed the Indian lawmakers that ‘the U.S.-India bilateral trade has grown by a factor of five over the last 15 years, to over $ 100 billion and wants to increase it by another fivefold.’

On the defence front the strides made in recent times are even more gigantic. The defence trade between the U.S. and India has risen from some $300 million to over $14 billion during the last 10 years and it is growing. There is no doubt that the U.S. is investing in a long term strategic partnership with India. Senator Warner after introducing the U.S.-India Defence Technology and Partnership Act, categorically said, “The bill bestows upon India the status it deserves as a partner in promoting security in Asia and around the world.”

The U.S. is also considering to sell India the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-3 missiles – the world’s most advanced – that can destroy tactical ballistic missiles carrying weapons of mass destruction, advanced cruise missile and aircraft. After a decade of shifting gradually towards the U.S., India is set to abandon all norms of non-alignment, sovereignty and autonomy in return for closer military ties. The Modi government has pursued vigorously the three foundational defence agreements, the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had opposed it, suggesting it undermined India’s policy of non-alignment. The crux of the matter is that India has openly allied with the US to counter the strategic convergence between Pakistan, China and perhaps also Russia.

On the other hand, the US-Pakistan relationship seems to be a repeat of what it was like in February, 2007, under the Bush administration where David Sanger’s article created the ground for Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to Pakistan, with the mantra of ‘Do More’, and concerns over Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda and insistence upon military action in Waziristan. Fast forward 2016, after a gap of nine years, The New York Times and Washington Post are at it again. The New York Times editorial captioned “Time to put the squeeze on Pakistan”, squarely blamed Pakistan for the mess in Afghanistan. The only difference is this time the US government has distanced itself from the public and the Congress outcry by saying that its relationship with Pakistan is important and vital.

However, the talk needs to be substantiated with actions on the ground, which seem to be missing. The issue of F-16, Shakil Afridi and lopsided policy on the nuclear issue and the latest drone attack in Balochistan are self-evident. Moreover, the signals of once again trying to minus Pakistan from the peace process in Afghanistan are not indicative of what is being said. The efforts Pakistan is making in Operation Zarb-e-Azb have not been mentioned in the recent narrative about Pakistan.

India-Saudi Arabia Relations
India is also cultivating closer ties with Saudi Arabia and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited the UAE and Saudi Arabia within a year, responding to calls in India that the country should insert itself in the broader geopolitical dynamics of the region, involving both Iran and Saudi Arabia. This allows India to counter Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations, but perhaps more importantly, new alliances of US-India and Saudi Arabia-India is in the making; seemingly at the expense of Pakistan. The US-India and India-Saudi Arabia defence and economic collaboration is impressive and growing, and both have strategic implications for Pakistan.

The year 2015 witnessed the historical strategic rapprochement between India and Saudi Arabia. The balance of power in South Asia is determining new global equations. The convergence between Saudi Arabia and India & US and India is more obvious than others and of interest and concern to Pakistan. Indian Prime Minister Modi, amongst other objectives, would like to build its ties with Saudi Arabia to isolate Pakistan. Just before the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh announced sanctions against four individuals and two organizations in Pakistan involved in financing terrorist operations – was this done to please India? The trade and investment ties between the two countries are growing robust. Saudi Arabia is amongst the top five trade partners of India. It is also the largest supplier of crude oil to India. The trade volume between Saudi Arabia and India touched USD 39.4 billion in 2014-2015. In 2012, Saudi Arabia came to India’s rescue by increasing oil exports to compensate for the dwindling supplies from Iran; post-US sanctions on Iranian oil industry. There are nearly 3 million Indians in Saudi Arabia making up the largest expatriate community.

To add to all this, Modi was conferred with the highest civilian honour by the Saudi King, on which even the Indian Muslim community has reservations. Notwithstanding, Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia are deep rooted. We will have to remain engaged and not leave any friendship vacuum for India. Pakistan is a natural moderator in any intra-Muslim countries conflict.

Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabian Triangle
India is trying to balance its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia, however, the convergence that it has with Saudi Arabia has gained a lot more depth. Moreover, Iranian Ambassador to Pakistan Mehdi Hoonardoost’s statement that Iran is willing to become a part of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is self-explanatory of the scheme of the things to come. The balance, India is trying to achieve, has been achieved by Pakistan. Pakistan foresees the natural convergence of interest between China, Iran and Pakistan. Pakistan and Iran have stakes in peace in Afghanistan. An unstable conflict-ridden Afghanistan has security implications for both Iran and Pakistan. There is an obvious trilateral convergence of interests between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

In fact the Indian design to destabilize Pakistan, through Afghanistan as a result of which Afghanistan remains conflict-prone, goes against the interests of both Pakistan and Iran. Willliam Dalrymples’ so called deadly triangle comprising India, Pakistan and Afghanistan can be countered by an emerging triangular relationship between Pakistan, Iran and China, and by giving peace a fair chance.

Notwithstanding the above, courting of Iran by India is viewed with concern as to where it could lead to in coming years. However, this factor should not be viewed as a sole threat to Pakistan; neither should this new relationship with India turn relations into Iran-Pakistan a zero-sum game. If Pakistan and China categorically say that CPEC corridor is not against any country and even India should become part of it, Pakistan should walk its talk when reacting to the recently signed agreement to develop Chabahar Port related infrastructure, availability of approximately $500 million for these projects and India’s economic charm offensive in the region.

Chabahar and Gwadar can complement each other rather than be in competition. Moreover, it is not practical for China to use Chabahar, nor has China shown any desire to cultivate it.

Iran is a very mature and pragmatic country, it may welcome the investment India wants to make in building up its port, as any country would, but it cannot erase from its memory the fact that very conveniently the same India had taken a velvet divorce from Iran, when it wanted to pursue the Civil Nuclear Deal with the U.S.. 2004 to 2014 is a lost decade in terms of Iran-India relations, a time when Iran desperately needed friends. In fact, India had also dumped Russia in pursuance of modernizing its armament and creating convergences with the west.

As for Afghanistan, Pakistan has on more than one occasions categorically said that it is committed to Afghan owned and Afghan led peace process. Pakistan believes that Afghanistan has complete independence of economic action but of course, no strategy should be conceived and followed as a counter to Pakistan’s initiatives.

Anybody who understands the ground realities would vouch for the fact that Chabahar is at best an option and not an alternative. It in no way undermines the importance of Gwadar Port.

In addition to it, India initiated Chabahar in 2003, inked in 2015, the logistics cash fluidity and the infamous Indian red-tapism are serious issues. Whereas, Gwadar would be operational in 2017. Moreover, last but not the least, India does not have the money muscles, China does. Pakistan accepts Chabahar with graciousness; it’s not a threat, if Pakistan continues to work on the Gwadar Port and CPEC with speed and commitment.

Pakistan should continue positive engagement with Iran and work on its becoming a part of One Belt, One Road initiative. Iran can be a part of it in spite of Chabahar. There is a natural convergence between the three countries i.e., is China, Pakistan and Iran. But for that, Iran must also cater for Pakistan’s sensitivities. It is but natural that Indian presence on Pakistan’s western border gives birth to suspicion and anxiety.

However, among other things, Pakistan and Iran should also learn from Chinese pragmatism. For years, Pakistan was in a strategic relationship with the US, sometimes even at the expense of China. However, China never held it against Pakistan and raised its concerns, if any, strictly through private diplomacy. This has a lesson for both the countries to avoid any public skepticism and ill-feelings in public.

Pakistan’s Role and Importance
The collaboration between U.S., India and Iran to stabilize Afghanistan, something touted by both U.S. and India, and also being welcomed by a very pro-Indian Afghanistan is unnatural. The desire to subtract Pakistan from the equation is unreal. It has not worked in the past and it would not work now. Bush tried exactly this. He de-hyphenated the India-Pakistan relation to address the Afghan situation and failed miserably. Later the relevance to bring Pakistan in the equation dawned on all. But, once again the U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter sees wisdom in replacing Pakistan with India. However, India strategically cannot contribute towards building peace in a country it uses to instigate violence in Pakistan. India wants to hold Afghanistan hostage to its designs in the region to hurt both Pakistan and China. The soft power thrust is a charade it very successfully uses to further its objective both against Pakistan and China

The security and economic dynamics of foreign policy for Pakistan and China stand intertwined. Pakistan’s focus has shifted from just geo-politics to geo-economics. This is in itself a major paradigm shift. The economic objectives that Pakistan has set for itself have direct stakes for peace and stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and improved relations with Iran and Russia. Pakistan is fast becoming a country investing in the politics of economy of growth, regional integration and peace. Pakistan energies are now geared towards neutralizing all conflicts inside its territory and improving relations with its neighbours to cultivate the atmosphere of peace. Can we say the same for India, with the rise of the RAW activities in Pakistan to sabotage CPEC; unprecedented investment in arm purchase and desire to alter the naval balance of power in the region?

The U.S. supporting all this is also indicative of the Indo-U.S. alliance geared towards promoting the Cold War dynamics in the region including arms race, pitching one state against another and working to curtail Chinese influence in the region – not a recipe for peace. The U.S. and Afghanistan, both are hostage to Indian lobbies, the cost of this is very high for Pakistan, but it is higher for the U.S. and Afghanistan, too. It’s costing 4 million dollar per hour for the U.S. tax payers, and this has gone on for 14 years. The cost for Afghanistan is the very ‘peace’ itself.

The writer is an associate professor in the Department of Social Sciences, IBA. She is also associated as a foreign and current affairs expert with Radio Pakistan and a private TV Channel.

[email protected]

Read 524 times