Foreign policy priorities

May 29, 2022

Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari holds productive talks during maiden visits to US and China

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akistan’s ‘unity’ government seems dynamic on the foreign policy front in terms of prioritising countries with which relations are to be enhanced and also neutralising misgivings and mistrust in USA and China.

Both these global powers have had extraordinary global and regional significance for a whole range of countries in the Global South including Pakistan, which is struggling with persistent economic issues. Earlier, the US had partnered with Pakistan in the post-Cold War period. The situation in Afghanistan provided a strategic context for bilateral engagement post 9/11. However, the US-Pakistan relations had several irritants, too.

The US-led Western withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 added an element of disinterest in bilateral ties due largely to divergent interests and choices. Post-withdrawal, Washington seems less reliant on Islamabad though it has been stressing the need to have an inclusive and democratic dispensation in Kabul. Islamabad, in principle, agrees with the growing global concern for a peaceful, stable and democratic Afghanistan. The Chinese and Russian authorities have also emphasised the need for political and economic stability in that war-ravaged country, which is facing a humanitarian crisis in the absence of global assistance.

Pakistan, while sharing the global desire to keep Afghanistan stable, hosted a couple of OIC sessions where along with the Muslim leadership, representatives of major powers such as the US were invited in a bid to generate agreement on the political future of Afghanistan. The OIC sessions reflected Pakistan’s ability to keep the world engaged diplomatically, while trying to underscore its regional significance for global peace and security. However, this approach limited Pakistan’s role to Afghanistan in the sense that since the Cold War the country has been bracketed with Afghanistan, in particular in the American foreign policy calculus.

In other words, our diplomats and foreign policy practitioners have been unable to project Pakistan as a sizeable market with abundant human resources to realise economic cooperation regionally and globally. Some Pakistani leaders have allowed short-term domestic interests to influence their foreign policy actions. Of course, domestic politics in any country is one of the factors that influence foreign policy formulation; it is, however, usually not a dominant variable. Linking foreign policy with domestic political agenda arguably was a disservice to the people of Pakistan.

Recently one could notice a certain realisation at the state level for the need to revisit Pakistan’s style of diplomacy and foreign policy conduct with key countries like the USA, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China. If we look at the diplomatic interactions under the previous and the current governments, the country’s political and military leadership have tried to engage simultaneously with the USA and Russia. Former prime minister Imran Khan’s Russia visit is a case in point.

Given the tense geopolitical environment, the Ukraine war, economic implications of the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate change crisis and the global food insecurity, Pakistan has to tread very cautiously. Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto’s China visit reflected that. The two countries resolved to further enhance bilateral economic, technological and defence cooperation.

Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari too manifested this approach during his recent visit to the US where he revealed Pakistan’s foreign policy contours in a candid manner. The Biden-led US government has a particular take on China. In a neorealist fashion, the US is engaging China commercially to enhance its “capabilities”. However, the former is also getting tough on the latter when it comes to its core strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific. Biden’s recent statement on Taiwan is a case in point. He said, the other day, that China is “flirting with danger” by seeking a military solution to its Taiwan problem. China views Taiwan as its integral part. The remark has alerted strategic elites in Beijing and its neighbouring countries such as Japan where the QUAD summit is being held. The QUAD is another US-led initiative to enhance its military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region to keep tabs on China in the future.

Given the tense geopolitical environment, the Ukraine war, economic implications of the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate change crisis and the global food insecurity, Pakistan has to tread very cautiously. Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto’s China visit reflected that. The two countries resolved to further enhance bilateral economic, technological and defence cooperation. There is a need to expand the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to, for example, Afghanistan. This could be one of the ways to stabilise the latter. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has also expressed his desire to expand it with the possible inclusion of Turkey, which is already working to align its Middle Corridor with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in southern Caucasus. In order to realise the CPEC’s full potential, it ought to be made multilateral and offer business and investment opportunities and incentives to the Saudi and UAE enterprises. Given that many US-based multi-national corporations such as Apple have been working in China for years, it should also be open to US investments. Pakistan’s topmost foreign policy priority must be to purse economic cooperation with these and other partners like the ASEAN in a sustained manner. However, there is a need to first put our own house in order as such a foreign policy design may not bring the desired outcomes without political stability at home.


The writer has a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University and a post-doc from UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and an associate professor at the Department of Social Sciences, Iqra University, Islamabad. He can be reached at ejaz.bhattygmail.com



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