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Our foreign policy dilemma

Upon assuming office in 2013, maintaining good relations with neighboring countries through regional economic integration was the mainstay of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s foreign policy. Three years on, however, Pakistan’s relations with all immediate neighbors, barring China, appear to be in tatters – pushing the country towards regional isolation. Despite this grim reality, security, rather than the economy, continues to dominate Pakistan’s regional dealings with its neighbors.

When forming his government, the prime minister chose to keep the foreign and defense ministries under his own watch to restore the civil-military imbalance and allow Pakistan’s multiple power centers to coordinate on foreign policy decision-making.

However, the political developments of 2014 – triggered by the PTI’s sit-in – compelled PM Sharif to concede space and authority to the military establishment, further tilting the balance in favour of the latter. This ceding of space should have necessitated the appointment of a full-time foreign minister. However, Sharif kept the foreign ministry with himself, while appointing Khawaja Asif as the full-time defence minister.

The absence of a full-time foreign minister has created an institutional vacuum within Pakistan’s Foreign Office (FO), resulting in policy inertia and a disorderly decision-making hierarchy. This has been evident during a series of recent diplomatic gaffes committed by the FO. Particularly concerning was the manner in which the FO handled the news of Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s killing in Balochistan, and contradictory statements following the handing over of the Angoor Adda check-post on the Pak-Afghan border to Afghanistan.

The FO’s dull and delayed response to Mansour’s killing allowed rumour-mongers and impatient analysts to have a field day, resulting in an awkward situation internationally. Moreover, the conflicting statements over the alleged handing over of the Angoor Adda check post to Afghanistan exposed the disconnect and lack of coordination between the different power-centres in the country’s foreign-policy apparatus. These foreign policy debacles have reignited the debate of having a full-time foreign minister and the urgent need to overhaul Pakistan’s foreign policy.

While reconsidering our current foreign policy outlook it is imperative to look at two crucial factors: the rapidly changing regional and international environment and the cold-war mindset of Pakistan’s foreign-policy-elite.

The rapid transformations taking place in Pakistan’s immediate neighbourhood and at the international level will have long lasting-impacts on the country’s political, economic and security interests. These international and regional developments are marked by two apparent trends: the formations of new alliances with old foes and the collapses of old alliances and friendships.

The historic visits of outgoing US President Barack Obama to Vietnam, Cuba and normalisation of ties with Iran as well as growing US-India cooperation are but some illustrations of these trends. In the new global power configuration, Pakistan is at the receiving end of the US-India alliance by virtue of being China’s closest ally.

Similarly, China, which until recently only focused on economic development and remained generally neutral in global politics beyond its immediate interests, has become more assertive on the international front. Beijing’s open support to the Assad regime in Syria, along with Russia and Iran and against the US-backed opposition groups, its ‘One Road One Belt’ policy epitomised by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and assertive military posturing in the South and North China seas, show that the country’s age-old policy of neutrality is changing for good.

Likewise, India is also shedding its non-alignment character of the cold-war era – a clear growth of its foreign policy. By collaborating with Washington DC, New Delhi is aspiring for a more proactive role not just in South Asia but globally as well. India’s bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, its efforts to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), and growing US-Indian strategic partnership that is expanding to the Asia-Pacific region are all indicators of India’s grand ambitions.

In light of these regional dynamics, Pakistan’s zero-sum approach and its fixation with the cold-war mentality in terms of its foreign policy dealings also need to be done away with. Foreign policy cannot be based merely on regional rivalries or security-centric demands.

Foreign affairs and diplomacy are conducted through flexibility and pragmatism. Pakistan’s current foreign policy is the exact opposite of this. Rather than being flexible, our positioning has generally been on the extreme ends of the foreign policy spectrum. Therefore, in bilateral dealings, we are either ‘friends’ or ‘foes’, allies or non-allies, partners or competitors, with little flexibility of the space between these extremes.

Managing cooperation in multiple sectors along with dealing with long-standing disputes is something we perhaps do not believe in or do not have the capacity to pursue. Moreover, states’ interests and priorities determine who their friends and enemies are. Pakistan is perhaps still a weak state whose friends and foes have dictated its policy choices and interests.

This out-dated approach appears to have landed the country in the regional isolation it currently finds itself in. This isolation is not simply the consequence of changing American policies in Afghanistan and South Asia or visits by Indian Prime minister Modi in the neighbourhood vis-a-vis the Iran-Afghanistan-India nexus on Chahbahar Port. This isolation has been in motion due to the choices we have made since the US drawdown from Afghanistan in December 2014.

Pakistan’s repeated refusal to allow India land access for transit trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia, and vice versa, and its insistence to keep India-Pakistan and Afghanistan-Pakistan relations security-centric rather than diversifying them have compelled the regional players to look for alternatives that bypass Pakistan altogether. In the post-modern world, conflict and cooperation go hand in hand. US-China and India-China dealings are perhaps the perfect illustrations of countries that are managing their affairs in multi-layered and multifaceted policy webs.

And, finally, a country situated in the centre of a hostile neighbourhood and with declining ties with the leading superpower of the world needs a full-time foreign minister who is politically astute and diplomatically imaginative. He should have the vision and the capability to amend Pakistan’s broken relations with its neighbours along with meeting the competing demands of multiple power-centres whose input is critical and unavoidable to Pakistan’s foreign policy.

The writer is an associate researchfellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Email: isabasit@ntu.edu.sg

Abdul Basit, "Our foreign policy dilemma," The News. 2016-06-18.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Foreign policy , Pak-Afghan relation , United Nations , Diplomacy , Terrorism , Militancy , Khawaja Asif , PM Nawaz Sharif , Afghanistan , Pakistan , FO , NSG

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