Can't connect right now! retry

add The News to homescreen

tap to bring up your browser menu and select 'Add to homescreen' to pin the The News web app

Got it!

add The News to homescreen

tap to bring up your browser menu and select 'Add to homescreen' to pin the The News web app

Got it!

September 30, 2018

Gaffes on the foreign front


September 30, 2018

Things seem to be going haywire for the PTI government in the realm of external affairs. First, a controversy broke out on what transpired in the telephonic conversation between Prime Minister Imran Khan and United States’ Secretary of State Mark Pompeo.

That was followed by unwonted, if not indiscreet, remarks reportedly made by the PM’s adviser on commerce and industries about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which he had to deny. Then India snubbed Pakistan’s offer for resumption of dialogue. Has the government failed to put its best foot forward on the foreign front?

On August 22, Pompeo rang up PM Khan to greet him on his election to the high office. While Washington insisted that the secretary of state raised the issue of cross-border terrorism in Afghanistan, Islamabad denied that the matter formed part of the conversation. With both sides sticking to their guns, the US shared the record of the conversation with Pakistan. Our Foreign Office responded by hushing up the matter.

As the transcript has not been made public, it will remain a matter of conjecture as to who misrepresented the content of the telephonic call. All the same, it can be safely remarked that, given the occasion and the context, the conversation could not have been tittle-tattle. The top American diplomat might have highlighted the prickliest of issues between the two nations. For quite some time, bilateral relations have been defined by Islamabad’s role in bringing stability to Afghanistan including, taking what the Americans call, ‘a decisive action against Afghan Taliban operating in Pakistan.’

It was on the suspicion that Pakistan is allegedly harbouring the militants that the US put on hold close to $1 billion in security assistance to Pakistan at the start of the current year. Recently, in August, Washington announced to withhold $300 million in the Coalition Support Fund for the same reason. On its part, Pakistan has from time to time rebutted American allegations. So if the terrorism issue was flagged by Pompeo, it was neither a matter of surprise nor of embarrassment.

The phone call was followed by the US secretary of state’s brief visit to Pakistan and his call on the PM on September 5. Again, the outcome of the parleys was reported differently by both sides. Foreign Minister Qureshi stated in vague terms that the parleys had ‘set the stage to reset’ bilateral relations and that each side conveyed to the other its concerns and expectations. His US counterpart, on the other hand, said that both sides discussed a peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict and that “we made clear to them [Pakistan] and they agreed that it’s time for us [both Pakistan and the US] to begin to deliver on our joint commitment.” The difference in language aside, it is inconceivable that the issue of cross-border militancy, the sticking point between the two countries, didn’t come up for discussion. For sure, Pompeo didn’t travel to Pakistan just to have a chat with our leadership.

In recent years, Pakistan’s frosty relations with the US have pushed it closer to China. The signing of CPEC agreements in 2015 represented a high point in Sino-Pak relations. The previous government set great store by the mega infrastructure related plan, which it had termed a ‘game changer’. It was in that context that PM Khan’s adviser on trade and industries’ reported statement – in which he is was reported to have told London-based ‘Financial Times’ that the new government was considering to possibly renegotiate CPEC agreements, allegedly because Chinese companies had been given preferential treatment viz-a-viz their Pakistani counterparts in terms of tax breaks and other incentives – stirred up a hornet’s nest. The statement coincided with the visit of the Chinese foreign minister to Islamabad, which was the first high-level context between the two countries after the transfer of political power in Pakistan.

Important as CPEC is for a cash-strapped Pakistan’s development, several details of the plan have been kept under wraps. Arguably, the most important question for a highly indebted nation as we are concerns the financing – loan versus investment – of the projects. The OBOR initiative, of which CPEC is a kernel, has generated a lot of criticism for allegedly being an instrument of setting up a massive debt trap for ‘beneficiary’ countries. On no account, therefore, is it unpatriotic or even unreasonable to question the relative costs and benefits of enhanced economic engagement with China, or to demand the government to come clean on the terms of engagement, or pick holes in the plan’s overall design or intended outcome. However, whatever concerns the new government nourished regarding CPEC had better been taken up through diplomatic channels rather than the media.

It need hardly be mentioned that Pakistan’s CPEC-related commitments are bilateral and can be revisited only with mutual consent. Not surprisingly, the remarks didn’t go down well with Beijing, and put Islamabad in an awkward position. Within hours, the adviser had to eat the humble pie when he averred that he was quoted out of context. Later, China was assured of Pakistan’s unflinching commitment to CPEC.

The unreciprocated peace overtures towards New Delhi have ended up ballooning up Pak-India tensions. In his letter addressed to his Indian counterpart, PM Khan called for ‘constructive engagement’ between the two countries to resolve all outstanding issues, and suggested a meeting between their foreign ministers on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session. New Delhi first acceded to the FMs’ meeting but on second thought flip flopped on the proposal on flimsy grounds. The vitriolic statement made by the Indian army chief and then PM Khan’s abrasive tweet in which he had a dig at Narendra Modi, without naming him, made matters worse.

The opposition parties gave the government a rap on the knuckles for having set out on the peace initiative with India in a tearing haste. The language of the epistle has come under fire for being too conciliatory in tone, verging on being apologetic, while the content drew fire for offering to discuss ‘terrorism,’ which for New Delhi has only one meaning – alleged infiltration of government-backed non-state actors from Pakistan into India. The allegation also formed part of the joint statement issued at the end of the US secretary of state’s recent visit to India.

While the use of conciliatory language was not unwarranted, it does offer a contrast with the PTI’s familiar hard stance on the previous government’s abortive attempts to normalise relations with India. In particular, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was sardonically branded as ‘Modi ka yar (Modi’s friend) by the PTI. Now that he is prime minister, it must have dawned on Imran Khan that offering an olive branch to an estranged neighbour does not signify that you are a traitor or even short on patriotism. Musharraf did so and so did Zia and several other leaders. At the other end of the scale, expressing the willingness to discuss terrorism doesn’t constitute a concession to India. It’s logical that when two sides sit down for talks, each will raise the issues it deems vital. Meaningful negotiations can’t be held if one side insists that only the issues of its concern may come up for discussion.

With Indian elections less than a year away and the Indian prime minister in the midst of a $6.8 billion scam pertaining to purchase of military aircraft from France, the timing of the peace overture wasn’t opportune. When the chips are down for rulers, they grasp at straws. Playing up the cacophony of nationalistic fervour is a convenient way out in our part of the world.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi

Topstory minus plus

Opinion minus plus

Newspost minus plus

Editorial minus plus

National minus plus

World minus plus

Sports minus plus

Business minus plus

Karachi minus plus

Lahore minus plus

Islamabad minus plus

Peshawar minus plus