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Narrowing the gulf

In a recent visit to Beijing to attend a seminar, the earnestness of Chinese scholars to wish for Pakistan to come out of its multifarious troubles was unmistakable. What was more important though was their clear-headedness on the fact that it is Pakistan itself, and no external actor, including Beijing, that is to eventually act to solve its own problems. Therefore, it is imperative for Islamabad to realise that international friends can only offer a supporting hand, the heavy-lifting has to be done by Pakistan. A Chinese colleague, with whom one could not help but agree, stated that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) should not be seen as a panacea for Pakistan’s problems.

The moral here is that Islamabad needs to understand China’s limitations to help and should not take Beijing’s support for granted. It needs to put its own house in order before it is able to benefit from CPEC. Hence, the first geostrategic reality of Pakistan is the cordial relations it enjoys with Beijing. That is a good thing but Islamabad needs to watch its steps and nurture the relationship by enacting serious reforms in different sectors, to fully benefit from Chinese investments and the overall goodwill.

We should keep in mind that at the end of the day, Beijing’s foremost consideration is its own national interest. And its national interest necessitates a peaceful South Asia, especially better Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, so that its connectivity projects are implemented without hurdles. Its recent initiative to host a trilateral dialogue between Beijing, Islamabad and Kabul, points to its desire for better Pak-Afghan relations.

The second geostrategic reality facing Pakistan is the new and more aggressive approach of the US towards different issues in South Asia. Foremost among its priorities remains Afghanistan followed by its equally important relations with India. The Trump administration has put aside the practice of setting timelines for its military presence in Afghanistan, and has instead expressed determination to extend its presence based on improved security situation and the establishment of durable peace in Afghanistan.

It has stated on different occasions, and at all levels of the US administration, that Islamabad had not done enough to help beat the insurgency. It wants Islamabad to do more. Withholding of funds under the Coalition Support Fund has become a norm. Washington has threatened to act unilaterally if needed and target militant groups allegedly operating from inside Pakistan. Moreover, the US joined India in its criticism of CPEC by stating that the corridor passed through disputed territories.

Considering the geostrategic situation around Pakistan, a reference to the recent US National Security Strategy, as unveiled last month by President Trump, is imperative. The strategy lists three main sets of challenges faced by Washington and which needed to be taken head-on. These include: ‘the revisionist powers of China and Russia; the rogue states of Iran and North Korea; transnational threat organisations, particularly jihadist terrorist groups’. Among these, the so-called revisionist powers of China and Russia had to be watched and dealt with according to given situations, while maintaining good relations as much as possible. The other two sets of challenges had to be dealt with, including with the use of military power, if required.

What’s in it for Pakistan? With Trump’s aggressive rhetoric, policymakers in Islamabad have indicated their desire to explore alternative venues to ward off the US pressure. Pakistan has focused on improving relations with Moscow together with its already cordial relations with Beijing. But is that a solution to Islamabad’s predicament in the complex geostrategic environment of South Asia? Zero-sum games in foreign policy always bring more harm than good, especially to developing countries such as Pakistan. At present, Pakistan urgently needs help from any quarter possible to fix its economy so that it can cater to the needs of its increasing youth bulge. It has to urgently find ways to offer jobs.

The country is traditionally aligned with the US and the West. Its governance systems, including its economy and education system are modelled after the Western systems. It will not be in Pakistan’s best interests to join one block against another. There are examples in foreign affairs where countries enjoy cordial relations with opposing countries, India being one such example. New Delhi enjoys cordial relations with Moscow, Washington and Tehran. And if not cordial, it has a working relationship in place with Beijing. The solution, thus, does not lie in choosing international blocks, it lies in revisiting policy choices, with an eye on enlightened national interests and intention to harm no one.

Islamabad needs to do some serious brain-storming over its relations with neighbouring countries. Fixing its relations with Kabul will please all, including Beijing, Moscow and Washington. Policymakers in Pakistan need to do some serious thinking to understand as to what it is that strained its relations with Kabul. This is not to suggest that Islamabad should set aside its concerns with regard to New Delhi’s presence in Afghanistan, but to suggest that Pakistan needs to spell out its concerns loudly and clearly regarding what unsettles it with regard to the Kabul-New Delhi relations. If it is the Durand Line, then that can be put on the table with Washington and other relevant international actors and innovative solutions could be thought out.

Successive governments in Kabul have reiterated their stance on the Durand Line issue. They observed that although they will not recognise the Durand Line as an international border, they do not seek to change the status quo. This means that the dividing line is accepted as a de-facto border. Moreover, ours is not the age of strict borders, it is the age of making borders irrelevant. This makes perfect sense in the context of Afghanistan and Pakistan who share so much in common, including history, geography, culture and language. The border between the two countries can be made irrelevant by allowing a free flow of goods and people between the two countries.

Fixing relations with Kabul will put to rest the whole debate of terrorist sanctuaries and allegations of supporting militant networks. As far as Islamabad’s uneasiness with regard to the presence of Baloch militants in Afghanistan is concerned, then that can be taken up diplomatically by enlisting the support of Beijing, Washington and even the UN. But that can be done once Islamabad has earned the moral high ground by addressing the accusations of supporting anti-Afghan militant groups.

As far as Pak-India relations are concerned, Islamabad and New Delhi can learn a lot from India and China’s relations. Both the countries have maintained good trade relations despite serious border disputes.

Shahid Ilyas, "Narrowing the gulf," The news. 2018-01-14.
Keywords: Political science , Chinese scholars , US-administration , National security , Military power , Policy makers , Developing countries , International actors , International borders , History , Geography , Language