The Pakistan-UK relationship and why it’s undergoing a cold patch

The Pakistan-UK relationship and why it’s undergoing a cold patch

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Pakistan’s relationship with the United Kingdom has remained traditionally strong and strategically significant owing to British colonial linkages and Pakistan being part of the commonwealth of nations. Pakistan’s political and military elites had boasted strong ties not only with the British royal family but also with British political elites and bureaucratic structures. The presence of a vibrant and large Pakistani diaspora community within Britain and its hard earned political and social capital within British society further strengthens the bonds between the two countries.  

The diaspora connection has added a human factor within this bilateral relationship. This has meant that developments within the UK concerning Pakistan no longer remain a strictly internal affair and the Pakistani perspective does get a loud voice within the British political spectrum. Similarly, British political figures and senior civil servants have not only played a critical role in political happenings within Pakistan but also in brokering engagement between Pakistan and India particularly on the issue of Kashmir. 

The bilateral relationship had followed a positive trajectory in the recent past and the start of projects under the purview of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was initially welcomed by the UK triggering deliberations of possible British investments in such ventures. The official line still has been the same, with the added caveat of CPEC projects being implemented in the “right” manner. The election of Imran Khan as Prime Minister of Pakistan brought further excitement in this regard as Khan boasted a unique personal connection with the heart of British political and social life. Khan’s government was instrumental in easing up the country’s visa regime making it easier for British tourists and travellers to visit Pakistan. These steps taken by the Pakistani government were reciprocated by the British government as it gave a green signal to British air careers to resume their operations in Pakistan. On the softer side, the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Pakistan in 2019 was also widely covered by both British and international press.

It remains puzzling that Khan, who has spent more than half of his life in Britain has not tried to convert his enormous social capital within the UK into political capital for his government and country.

Umar Karim

Yet the bilateral engagement on political matters has been a rather complicated affair owing to both domestic politics within the two countries and their changing foreign policy outlook. As the political temperature within South Asia increased due to the revocation of Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status by Narendra Modi’s government in India, the British political fold also felt its tremors. The Labour Party passed a strong resolution demanding international intervention on the Kashmir issue while on the other hand, Hindu rightwing organizations and their chapters in UK actively rallied behind the Conservative Party. The victory of the Conservative Party in the election of December 2019 brought a government into power where pro-India lobby groups exercised considerable influence. The relatively mild reaction of the British government to some of the worst anti-Muslim violence in the Indian capital in early 2020 was a testament to that.  

Another key factor has been the UK’s changing foreign policy outlook towards China. The bilateral ties that have reached new heights under the Cameron government are now mired by controversies over Hong Kong, Huawei 5G Internet kits and the alleged human rights abuses of Uighur Muslims in China. This change of heart towards China has been most prominent in the UK’s 10-year defense and foreign integrated review where it has been argued that China poses a systemic challenge to UK’s security, prosperity and values, though also admitting the need to work alongside China. This British pivot towards the Indo-Pacific also advocates for a greater strategic engagement with India and in turn views the Chinese foray into Pakistan in a rather different manner. Afghanistan has been one such arena where both sides have engaged rather positively, and the UK has been appreciative of the role played in particular by Pakistan military towards Afghan reconciliation and peace process. 

On the Pakistani side, the attempts by the current government to bring back Pakistani opposition leadership residing in the UK and the resultant failure has been ominous for bilateral ties. Moreover, a reluctance on the part of Pakistani premier Imran Khan to visit UK has not helped the situation either. It remains puzzling that Khan, who has spent more than half of his life in Britain has not tried to convert his enormous social capital within the UK into political capital for his government and country.  

Pakistan’s recent inclusion into the UK COVID-19 “Red List” while having fewer daily coronavirus cases than India, France and Germany and its placement in the list of Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing High-Risk Countries, have also spurred a debate within the country’s political circles that these moves are political and not fact based. This further suggests that diverging geopolitical interests of both countries within the region and global level alongside the failure of Pakistan’s political leadership to enhance its political engagement with the current British government have led to the current cold patch in the bilateral relationship.

– Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, the conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. @UmarKarim89

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