A new government, especially one led by a political party that is taking power for the first time, provides an opportunity to rethink our foreign policy. For various reasons, our relations with most of our neighbours are at rock-bottom. There is essentially no relationship to speak of with India, and ties with Afghanistan are laced with mutual suspicion. The early signs are that Imran Khan will have the opportunity to hit the reset button. Since the PTI emerged as the largest party after the July 25 elections, Imran has spoken with both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. He accepted an invitation from Ghani to visit Kabul and spoke about the possibility of peace talks with Modi.
There is a greater possibility of a breakthrough with Afghanistan. The Ghani administration and its US allies have realised that the only way to end the war in Afghanistan is through peace talks with the Afghan Taliban and that Pakistan is needed to facilitate those talks. India is another matter altogether. When the PML-N took power in 2013, Modi was similarly courteous to Nawaz Sharif – a prime minister who genuinely wanted peace and trade with India – only to revert to typical anti-Pakistan form soon after. There is no reason to believe he has changed and Imran will have to be careful in his dealings with a man who has made it his mission to scapegoat Pakistan as a distraction from its brutal occupation of China.
The PTI’s greater challenge may be balancing our relationships with the two most power countries in the world – the US and China. The PML-N government correctly pursued closer ties with China, especially in the form of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. That has given Pakistan greater freedom to resist American dictation than ever before. But CPEC projects have been slow to generate revenue and many of our bills are now due. There have been murmurs that Pakistan will need to seek a new IMF bailout of $12 billion just to pay off Chinese loans that will soon be due. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already said he doesn’t want IMF money being diverted to China. The US and China are currently in the midst of a trade war and Pakistan could get caught in the middle. The merits of seeking another IMF bailout aside, the new government will have to deal with the temperamental Trump administration in the US. The US has little leverage with us now that it has cut most aid but it still dominates international institutions like the IMF. Maintaining a delicate balancing act between Pakistan’s tilt towards China and the country’s need to maintain good relations with the US may be the greatest foreign policy challenge the PTI inherits from the previous government.