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Diplomacy: back on track?

On their recent visit to the United States to attend the 77th session of the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto held dozens of bilateral and multilateral meetings with their counterparts.

It is reassuring to note that rather than going down the dangerous path of taking sides, their engagements with leaders from all countries, including the US, China, Russia, and the Muslim world, remained equally cordial. The success or failure of their diplomacy will be seen in the future, but this can be stated with confidence: both the prime minister and the foreign minister said all the right things, and successfully avoided making controversial remarks, which, if they had indulged in, would have the potential of damaging Pakistan’s national interests.

The other related and reassuring element was that both the leaders, in all their interactions, made it clear that Pakistan’s national interests guided their behaviour, rather than anything else. One common denominator in their interactions with world leaders, think tanks, and the media was that they refused to utter anything which could have shown them standing with one power bloc or the other in the international arena, thus potentially putting Pakistan’s national interests in jeopardy.

Pakistan’s foreign relations are always guided by the country’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s strong assertions that the country would seek cordial relations with all. This belief emanated from his strong conviction in the fact that for a new and a medium-sized country like Pakistan, it was never a good idea to indulge in bloc politics. Therefore, Pakistan has always maintained, as far as it was in its power to do so, to maintain friendly relations with all the important global players – the US, China, the former Soviet Union (now Russia), and the Muslim world. This policy has served Pakistan well. It was only due to its aversion to bloc politics that Islamabad was able to play the role of a bridge between the US and China in the 1970s, the benefits of which it is still reaping in the shape of having the reputation of a conciliator in international relations.

The comment of Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto in a recent media interaction in which he said that “we are not a geopolitical football” to be played by one big power against another is exactly the kind of foreign policy that Pakistan needs to pursue. Pakistan has already suffered immeasurably due to its involvement in the different wars fought in Afghanistan for the last more than four decades. Statements, emanating from Pakistan’s foreign and strategic policy-making establishment, indicate that the idea that it is best for Pakistan to stay away from international conflicts has sunk in. There are also indications that policymakers in Islamabad are convinced that the only path that Pakistan must follow to maintain its national security and integrity is through economic development. And for that, Pakistan cannot afford to take unnecessary sides in international power politics.

For a country like Pakistan, with the host of problems it faces including economic under-development, climate catastrophe, energy deficiency, poor human development indicators, governance issues and institution-building, it needs the support of all countries including that of the US, China, Russia, and the oil rich countries in the Middle East. It cannot afford to have less than cordial relations with any of these power centers.

China has emerged as the second largest economy in the world. Pakistan needs Chinese support in multiple fields including infrastructure building in the fields of communication, energy, and industrial development under the umbrella of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Neither can Pakistan afford to have bad relations with the US, which is a favourite destination for the country’s exports, especially in the textile sector, which constitutes approximately 60 per cent of Pakistan’s total exports. Islamabad has historically enjoyed good relations with the US in the defence industry and the latter has been one of the main suppliers to Pakistan in the defence sector.

Similarly, Islamabad needs to maintain good friendly relations with Moscow, which is rich in energy resources as well as a favourite address to procure edible oil and wheat, not to speak of the complex geo-strategic location in which Pakistan is situated, and the diplomacy which Pakistan has to carry out with Russia.

Pakistan needs friendly relations with the Arab countries of the Middle East for multiple reasons, including the fact that millions of Pakistani labourers working in these countries are the main source of remittances from these countries, the diplomatic support that these countries provide on different sensitive issues, and it being one of Pakistan’s main suppliers in the oil and gas sector.

From the aforementioned visit by Pakistan’s leaders and the kind of attention that they received from the international community, including from the UN chief, US President Joe Biden, US Secretary of State Blinken, Russian President Putin, and French President Macron, apart from their meetings with the leaders of international financial institutions, it can be safely concluded that the world has finally come round to the outcome that Pakistan needs to be listened to, and helped. That is good news, and Pakistani leaders need to build on that momentum.

But the most important factor which needs to be ensured to capitalize on Pakistan’s cordial foreign relations is the building of a conducive home base of skilled and literate human resource, and a modern and diversified industrial base in order to prosper.

We often boast of our overwhelming young population. But this will remain a serious challenge for Pakistan unless it is converted into an opportunity by mass education. Interacting fruitfully with the outside world needs world-class citizens in all sectors of the economy, and a modern and diversified industrial base to be able to trade with other countries.

Email: ilyasakbarkhan@gmail.com

Shahid Ilyas, "Diplomacy: back on track?," The News. 2022-10-13.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Foreign policy , Power politics , Diplomacy , President Biden , President Putin , Russia , United States , UN