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Lessons from foreign policy management ( Part – III )

Due to this coalition of the willing, ownership at the Foreign Office and the political push, we were able to start the dialogue process to give space so as to find space to move forward. This is not remarkable by any means; it is a very simple and logical way to pursue your interest, one that is grounded in dispute resolution, not dispute perpetuation.

With this approach, Pakistan was able to break the decades of stated position that we cannot move forward on trade unless we move forward on Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. I made the point in the FO that anyone who says that, in fact, never wants to move forward on Kashmir.

The logic was simple: you cannot solve intractable problems in an environment of mistrust; you need a degree of normalization to be at a place to even start talking about solving the intractable. In the same way, we challenged India’s claim that terrorism was their issue. Terrorism was Pakistan’s issue before it was India’s, as we suffered at its hands, and made the point that we would be better served to look at terrorism as a mutual problem/threat.

All of this led us to start the trade normalization process. We were able to move the positive list to the negative list, and also move towards granting MFN status to India. A summary on that was also submitted to the cabinet and was only sent back with minor observations to be brought back for a positive decision. Almost right after that, judicial activism led to the departure of the prime minister and instability ensued.

Unfortunately, the government that followed in Pakistan fell into the trap of holding back green lighting this process until a new government was formed in India. And we all know that the new government India got has not shown any intent to move forward in earnest with Pakistan; its ethos essentially revolves around a version of India that feeds on division and animosity for Pakistan.

The point of giving this long history of the short years in office is to demonstrate that good policy in a conducive environment becomes bad policy when the environment is hostile. In the current environment, we have to de-risk from taking any decision that is not de-risked from hostile behaviour from our eastern neighbour. The risk of doing the right thing at the wrong time is that it is not stable and consistent, and risks being undone before reaping any real benefits.

In foreign policy, you give space to take space to move forward. But if you give space to give more space with no possibility of moving forward then you are just pursuing a wish, not a policy. I remain the strongest proponent of normalizing trade with all of Pakistan’s neighbours. Whether in office or outside of it, I have always maintained deep concern that we must not use trade as a coercive tool on the western border. We are unable to appreciate that trade with Afghanistan is not only bilateral trade but also the conduit/trade corridor for the entire Central Asian Republics.

As far as I know, we have always maintained that Pakistan’s strength lies in exploiting its location as a trade corridor between South and Central Asia. When we arbitrarily close our western border for trade for bilateral reasons, we are sending a message that this is an unreliable trade corridor and diverting the future flow of investments in its hard and soft infrastructure.

I write this detailed account because without any doubt the new government will be faced with the India dilemma. Sometimes the best policy is to wait the tide out.

As we entered the Foreign Office in 2022, with FM Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, we were clear-headed on how India had transformed under Modi. There was no delusion that India was serious about moving forward. While in office, almost through all policy decisions the Modi government has demonstrated that it is more attached to stoking hatred for Pakistan specifically, and Muslims in general, than to looking for peace westwards of India.

When the option of going in person to attend the SCO meeting came, we made the difficult decision to go in person. Once the FM had decided through an in-house discussion, that included a short retreat with former foreign secretaries of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we took others into confidence.

The decision was based on three principles; one, we do not leave an important regional meeting such as the SCO because of location – it is never wise to lock yourself out of that space. Two, and keeping more nuance in mind, we thought this would be a good opportunity to give India a chance to show whether it wants to build a positive posture following this gesture by Pakistan. Three, and perhaps most importantly, there would be an obligatory mention of Occupied Jammu & Kashmir both in the statement and anywhere else where peace and conflict were under discussion.

We all know that the Indian foreign minister’s vile and undiplomatic press conference clearly sent the message that they were not interested in pursuing the path of peace in any way. It was sad, and another opportunity lost – but it is what it is.

It has to be mentioned that at the operational level, India gave all the courtesies that are to be expected, but it was clear that at the political level, they were attached to the idea of stoking hatred rather than creating opportunity.

We cannot change our geography; we have to own our geography and look for opportunities to normalize this region. Trade and people-to-people contact is the only way forward, but when the other country decides to go rogue on all its international commitments and bilateral agreements, it can only be foolish to remain starry-eyed about the possibility of moving forward. And you would be equally foolish not to move forward as soon as the circumstances change.

Concluded

Hina Rabbani Khar, "Lessons from foreign policy management ( Part – III )," The News. 2024-03-28.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political level , Terrorism , Undiplomatic , PM Modi , Bilawal Bhutto Zardari , Pakistan , India , SCO