Foreign policy predicaments

Things aren’t helped by the US closeness to India and focus on its one-dimensional policy of tackling terrorism with Pakistan’s active cooperation despite the latter’s wish to make the relationship diverse

Pakistan’s foreign policy came under focus sharply towards the end of 2019 due to an unusual situation arising from an Islamic summit hosted by Malaysia.

A debate was triggered when Pakistan stayed away from the summit in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, after having earlier accepted Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad’s invitation to attend the event.

In fact, holding an Islamic summit to discuss the plight of Muslims worldwide and come up with solutions was conceived by Mahathir Mohammad when he met Prime Minister Imran Khan and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September. All agreed not only to this idea, but also a proposal to set up a joint media project to counter Islamophobia. While the summit in Kuala Lumpur from December 18-21 was messed up due to the boycott led by Saudi Arabia, the media project hasn’t been shelved even though its materialisation would remain a challenge.

Questions were raised about how independent its foreign policy is, more so after the Turkish leader alleged that Saudi Arabia had pressured Pakistan by exploiting its economic difficulties to compel it not to attend the Kuala Lumpur meeting. He even claimed that Saudi Arabia had threatened to send back the four million Pakistani migrant workers from the kingdom and replace them with Bangladeshis and withdraw the money it had put in Pakistan’s State Bank to bolster the country’s meager foreign currency reserves.

On the request of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government earlier this year, Saudi Arabia had provided a $6 billion package to Pakistan including $3 billion directly deposited with the State Bank for “balance of payment support” and a one-year deferred payment facility of up to $3 billion for oil imports. The UAE, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, had followed suit with its own package of economic support to Pakistan.

Though the Saudi pressure on Pakistan was mentioned, it is obvious that the UAE, too, wanted it to skip the Kuala Lumpur event. Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had to visit the UAE to sort out the issue while Premier Imran Khan travelled to Riyadh to meet the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with the apparent aim to reassure him that Pakistan won’t attend the summit in Malaysia.

Though both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia denied the Turkish president’s assertions, it was hard to ignore the claims made by Erdogan, who is known for his forthrightness and independence of mind. Both Riyadh and Islamabad were bruised by Erdogan’s allegations as it put them in a poor light.

The Saudis were made to look menacing and calculated as if the allegations were true they were willing to use their economic power to protect their own political interests. As for the Pakistani ruling elite, it seemed helpless and timid, ready to make compromises even if reluctantly due to the acute economic problems at home. Pakistan’s ability to manoeuvre to pursue an independent foreign policy would remain constrained until it manages to stabilize its economy.

Once again Pakistan’s wish to strengthen the unity of Muslim Ummah through closer cooperation between Islamic countries has failed to materialise due to the deep divisions in their ranks. Though in the end it was proved that the Kuala Lumpur summit wasn’t meant to set up a parallel organization to the ineffective, Saudi-dominated Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as was being alleged by Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and their allies, the damage was done and the Malaysian initiative to unify Muslims perhaps caused more disunity. The real cause of Saudi and Emirati opposition to the Kuala Lumpur Islamic summit was the participation of leaders of their rival countries such as Iran, Qatar and Turkey and the importance accorded to them by Malaysia.

In the past, it was common to hear that the US dictated its terms to Pakistan to do its bidding. Though the US no longer has that kind of clout with Pakistan on account of its limited economic and military assistance and the latter is forever ready to reply in the same coin to any US allegation or demand, it was frustrating to listen from none else but Erdogan, one of Islamabad’s close friends, that the Saudis are now arm-twisting the Pakistanis.

Looking at the overbearing attitude of the US concerning Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia if what we had heard is true, China seems a gentle giant in terms of its non-interference in Pakistan’s affairs. Its military and economic support to Islamabad, including the unprecedented China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, is far more generous as there are no strings attached to it. As China-Pakistan relations continued to prosper, Pakistan and Russia also made sustained efforts to improve their relations, focusing on both military and economic ties. Chia, Pakistan and Russia also moved closer as they coordinated efforts to engage with the Afghan Taliban for pursuing a political settlement in Afghanistan and tackle the threat from the terrorist outfit, Islamic State (or Daesh).

However, Pakistan deserves to be credited for managing to maintain a balance in its relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia even though the two are open rivals. This is no mean feat considering the rising animosity between the Iranians and Saudis. Prime Minister Imran Khan even tried to mediate between the two, though it was obvious from the beginning that this wasn’t going to work. Pakistan had offered mediation in the past as well, but its efforts never really took off.

A change happened when Islamabad also started alleging that Baloch separatists were using Iranian soil to launch terrorist attacks in Pakistan. In the past, such allegations were made by Tehran which kept asking Pakistan to rein in Jundullah and Jaish al-Adl groups of Iranian Sunni Baloch from using its territory to carry out attacks in Iran. Though efforts continued to increase bilateral trade and economic cooperation, the potential remained un-utilised and the highly promising Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline was stalled.

The relations with two other neighbours, Afghanistan and India, in 2019 remained troublesome. India and Pakistan haven’t been on talking terms since the November 2008 Mumbai attacks and there was no real prospect of resumption of their composite dialogue to discuss the growing number of contentious issues ranging from Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, river waters distribution and trade to terrorism. India’s August 5 decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in its constitution and formalize its occupation made the relationship even more hostile. The issue at hand now was to avoid yet another war between the two unfriendly neighbours.

Concerning Afghanistan, the baggage of history continues to haunt the uneasy relationship. Every initiative, mostly undertaken by Pakistan, to improve the relations has faltered due to the deep mistrust between the two Muslim neighbours. The unfriendly political ties have also affected the trade relations. India’s growing influence in Afghanistan is a matter of concern for Pakistan. The presence of Afghan Taliban members in Pakistan and Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan is another matter of contention. There is some hope now that a likely Taliban-US peace deal, for which Pakistan is playing a role, could eventually lead to national reconciliation in Afghanistan. If that were to happen despite the formidable hurdles on the way, one can expect better Pak-Afghan relations in the future.

After years of animosity, the US has been warming up to Pakistan by restoring military trainings and some aid as it seeks its help to extricate itself from the Afghanistan imbroglio through a face-saving peace deal with the Taliban. However, things aren’t helped by the US closeness to India and focus on its one-dimensional policy of tackling terrorism with Pakistan’s active cooperation despite the latter’s wish to make the relationship diverse.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. He can be reached at [email protected]

Scrutinising Pakistan's foreign policy in 2019