Foreign policy is a central element of a country’s grand strategy through which national interests are articulated and achieved. Regardless of the differences in ideological orientation, political system, economic model, territorial and demographic size of a country, no nation-state can survive without foreign policy. Pakistan’s early leaders thus established the fundamental principles of its foreign policy based on state sovereignty, regional cooperation, and global peace and security. While pursuing its main strategic objectives at the start of the Cold War, Pakistan allied with the United States in the 1950s. However, in the mid-1960s it pursued close strategic relations with China in order to reduce its dependence on Washington. With the latter, Islamabad cooperated in the 1980s and 2000s; the interaction was primarily military and transactional in nature. Overall, US-Pakistan relations can be termed tactical while China-Pakistan relations are strategic oriented.
For the past 75 years, Pakistan’s main foreign policy agenda has focused on the Indian threat. He tried to counter India through his bilateral relations with the United States, China and other countries like Saudi Arabia. Even under multilateral agreements such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Pakistan has remained preoccupied with India. As far as the Muslim world is concerned, Pakistan has projected itself as a leading Muslim state with comparative strengths in military capabilities and human resources. Pakistan has taken a pro-Palestinian stance since 1948 even as some major Arab countries such as the United Arab Emirates established diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020.
In the government led by Imran Khan, the civil-military leadership has apparently remained on the same page when it comes to the conduct of foreign policy. The Bajwa-led military has taken the lead in determining the contours of Pakistan’s relations with, for example, the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and China. With regard to the latter, the economic element has been added through the CPEC. However, the previous government initially fumbled in the management of its relations with Beijing. In September 2018, Razak Dawood, the trade and investment adviser to the previous government, annoyed Chinese authorities with his remarks criticizing CPEC, which has been a key part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). General Bajwa then traveled to China to sort things out.
Regarding Pakistan’s foreign policy towards the United States, the Khan government has damaged relations with the Biden administration by not participating in the “democracy summit”, unnecessarily highlighting the issue of ” air bases” neither demanded by the White House nor proposed by the Pakistani authorities. ; visiting Russia just at the start of the war in Ukraine; and, above all, stoking anti-American sentiment in society. Nevertheless, with Pakistan being a key player in ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan, US officials remained in contact with Pakistani authorities, particularly the military. No wonder that in July 2019, General Bajwa accompanied the then Prime Minister to the United States. The former met with key Trump administration officials and discussed Afghan affairs at length. As the United States withdrew militarily from Afghanistan in September 2021, it urged Pakistan to work to secure a negotiated settlement of political authority in Afghanistan. Pakistan, for its own interests, seems to agree with the United States in this regard. It is important to note that US-Pakistani military ties have remained intact.
Besides China and the United States, another key country that the Khan government offended was Saudi Arabia. Although Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman was initially warmly welcomed in February 2019, situational shocks subsequently rocked bilateral relations. Riyadh’s aversion to the Kuala Lumpur summit remained in the city. At the eleventh hour, Khan postponed his visit to Malaysia to appease MBS-led Saudi Arabia. In August 2020, Saudi Arabia, according to media reports, pressured Pakistan to repay a $1 billion Saudi loan at short notice. Then Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi reacted with a scathing statement, which added fuel to the fire. The military authorities then prevented a further deterioration of relations by appointing a soldier as ambassador to the Kingdom. Regarding bilateral relations with Turkey and Iran, there have been no significant developments that could have helped Pakistan economically. Relations with India remained contentious due to India’s unilateral revocation of Articles 370 and 35A of its constitution. Khan once hinted at opening trade with New Delhi, but later dropped the idea. With regard to Afghanistan, the Central Asian states remained mostly closer to India than to Pakistan.
To top it off, the government led by Imran Khan has disrupted, if not disrupted, Pakistan’s relations with the only superpower, namely the United States, and major powers such as China and Saudi Arabia. These countries are major economic players at the regional and global level. Undoubtedly, the United States and the EU are major export markets, and therefore a source of foreign exchange, for the country. China, under the CPEC, has invested in the country at a critical time. The Saudis have traditionally supported the Pakistani economy through concessional oil supply and deferred payments.
The main foreign policy challenge for the Shahbaz Sharif government is to restore relations with Washington, Beijing and Riyadh. Regarding the latter, Prime Minister Sharif paid a timely visit to the Kingdom. This has certainly boosted bilateral engagement since the Sharifs have warm, personal and business ties with the Saudis. According to reports, the Pakistani authorities have received a much-needed $8 billion economic package. Pakistan must remain engaged with the United States for economic, diplomatic and military purposes. There is no match for American military technology today. Moreover, Pakistan must satisfy China’s growing security concerns in order to consolidate CPEC. The two countries should expand CPEC to Afghanistan and Iran to expand the market and attract foreign direct investment. Last but not least, Pakistan should establish trade relations with Central Asian states and enlist their diplomatic support in Afghanistan.
Finally, Islamabad must buy peace by not engaging in any armed conflict with India. Bilateral trade will be a win-win deal for both countries. However, the idea needs to be discussed extensively with relevant national stakeholders, including the military. Unilateral action on this point could backfire.
In a nutshell, the Shahbaz government must engage with important countries and stakeholders in terms of economic diplomacy so that our economic problems are resolved amicably.
The author holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Heidelberg and a post-doctorate from UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Iqra University in Islamabad. He tweets @ejazbhatty