Tuesday December 05, 2023

Troubled Pakistan’s weighty messages

May 10, 2023

In the last one week, while Pakistan has been steeped in political chaos and confronted with a continuing economic crisis, with an eye on regional connectivity, trade, security and diplomacy, it has also remained actively involved with the neighbourhood and with Eurasian States.

Pakistan participated in and hosted three strategically significant initiatives: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in India, the trilateral meeting on Afghanistan peace and security between the Pakistani, Chinese and Afghan foreign ministers convened in Islamabad; and the fourth China Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue also in Islamabad. Through these initiatives Pakistan has reiterated the key thrusts of its foreign policy, signaling five significant messages globally and regionally.

The first message is that Pakistan as a member of a strategically important and developing region is committed to regionalism and regional connectivity. It views regional connectivity as a critical factor for Pakistan’s economic progress and trade within the region and beyond. The fact that, despite Pakistan-India relations being in near freeze, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto participated in a meeting in India underscored the significance Pakistan attaches to the SCO as an emerging vehicle for regional connectivity. Bhutto emphasized this in his speech at the Goa meeting.

While staying away from bringing bilateral issues to the table, as is expected of all SCO member-states, Pakistan’s foreign minister emphasized that – Pakistan’s commitment to regional connectivity notwithstanding – Pakistan understands that regional connectivity cannot come to fruition unless the environment is not conducive though adherence to UNSC resolutions and to rule of law in inter-state relations.

As emphasized by Bilawal Bhutto, dispute resolution is critical to regional connectivity and unresolved disputes are hurdles in the implementation of the SCO spirit and achieving its objectives of regional peace and regional progress and prosperity. This fact is most evident when we see for example the criticality and centrality of Pakistan’s Grand Trunk Road in optimum connectivity for India and Central Asia and beyond and yet the unresolved dispute of Kashmir and normalization of Pakistan-India relations preventing operationalization of this connectivity.

Pakistan’s commitment to dealing with terrorism was highlighted and greater cooperation through the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS ) was sought. Clearly, tackling terrorism along with dispute resolution are two pre-conditions for maximizing multi-sectoral cooperation and connectivity within the SCO framework.

The second message was that bilateralism is important for Pakistan but on the basis of principles. This message was conveyed by Bilawal Bhutto through his presser with Pakistani journalists and through a couple of interviews he gave to Indian media. Bhutto clearly articulated in his press conference with Pakistani journalists that there was no change in Pakistan’s policy towards India – and that its relations with India will not normalize until India reviewed it’s unilateral changes it made on Jammu and Kashmir on August 4, 2019. India unilaterally ended Occupied Kashmir’s special status, through the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act, 2019 of India. The act divided the occupied state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Indian-administered union territories.

Pakistan demands reversal of these steps and remains committed to seeking a resolution to the Kashmir issue with UNSC resolutions as the starting point for any resolution.

The third message from Pakistan has been that China remains the cornerstone of Pakistan’s geo-strategic, economic and development. There are mutual benefits of this relationship which are harvested within the context of a shared vision of peace, progress and security. Also, the architecture of this relationship rests on specific elements like CPEC, joint military projects, elaborate trade ties, mutually supportive diplomatic positioning on issues ranging from One China, the India threat, Taiwan, Kashmir, South China Sea, and more recently a shared positioning on Saudi Arabia and Iran.

During the fourth strategic dialogue trouble spots were discussed. Steps towards finalization of the geostrategically important ML-1 upgradation project cost now at around $10 billion. Around 90 per cent of its funding at less than two per cent interest rate to be paid over 25 years with a 10-year grace period for this 730-kilometer long railway track project will be financed by China.

Pakistan views its links with China as organic and has grown over decades. Pakistan is a reliable partner, China is a trustworthy partner and while Pakistan and China can have differences but with the valuable transparency in the relationship , the differences do not morph into subtext of conspiracies. Instead it’s all out in the open between the shared diplomatic and political space between the two strategic partners. Pakistan has enjoyed a solid relationship with China for the last six decades and the future of this relationship looks no different from its past.

The fourth message from Pakistan was that for Pakistan peace and security in Afghanistan is critical. If Pakistan views regional connectivity as one of the critical factors for peace, progress and security then that connectivity without peace and stability in Afghanistan is not possible. In fact, with violence and disruption inside Afghanistan, regional connectivity with Central Asia and beyond is very difficult and cannot be fully operationalized. To promote Afghan peace, a trilateral meeting between the foreign ministers of Pakistan, China and Afghanistan took place. The acting foreign minister is currently kept out of many multilateral meetings given the Taliban government’s denial of education, mobility and employment to the women of Afghanistan.

Last week, the UN secretary-general convened a meeting on Afghanistan in Doha in which the current acting Afghan foreign minister was not invited. Pakistan was invited and hence in the Islamabad meeting the international community’s – specifically the UN’s – message to the Afghanistan minister was conveyed.

The three foreign ministers explored ways in which Pakistan and China could help Afghanistan. Also Pakistan is facing the serious threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan and has stressed on the need for greater cooperation from Kabul in tackling this threat. Multiple issues were discussed in detail including the possibility of further Chinese investment in Afghanistan; Afghanistan’s policy towards women; and how Afghanistan is dealing with the freezing of Afghan central bank reserves amounting to about $3.5 billion. The purpose was to promote peace, security, internal reform within Afghanistan by addressing the issues of food and employment that Afghans face as well as steps to promote Afghanistan’s global engagement.

The fifth message from Pakistan was that Pakistan does not believe in bloc politics. Pakistan has consistently highlighted this fact. Yet it is important to emphasize that China is our critical, long-lasting, reliable and trustworthy friend – and that will remain so. It is not a zero-sum game for Pakistan; it’s not about either or.

Since the 1960s, Pakistan’s successive governments have engaged with both major powers. The architecture of our relationship with China is vastly different from what it is with the West. Pakistan has astutely avoided choosing one over the other. That policy has been clear and consistent ever since the 1950s when the US, then Pakistan’s only major ally, asked Pakistan for token support in its Korean war. Pakistan politely declined. Pakistani policymakers always found American support to Pakistan tentative and undependable given Washington’s ongoing pivot towards Pakistan’s much larger hostile neighbour.

These issues are important and worth underscoring. We may be in trouble, in economic doldrums – yet this doesn’t in any way change Pakistan’s vision in terms of what regional integration means, what bilateralism in principle means, what its own vision of its future means.

Meanwhile, very hard work is needed by Pakistan to pull itself out of this economic mess. And no surprise that Pakistan’s strategic ally advised it openly: important to settle your internal political differences, ‘build consensus’ so there is “political stability” for Pakistanis to face their internal and external challenges. Few in Pakistan would disagree with this. But that China articulated this openly means the message was being relayed to all political players on Pakistan’s entire political horizons. And China as a close and sincere friend of Pakistan, with huge stakes in Pakistan’s stability and progress, is no less concerned about Pakistan’s self-created internal mess than most Pakistanis are.

The writer is a senior journalist. She tweets at @nasimzehra

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