Is Pakistan’s neutrality on Ukraine against national interests?
One may accept it as an unfortunate coincidence that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent official visit to Russia happened on the day President Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine. One may also concede that the visit was planned months earlier and despite the possibility of war, it was extremely difficult to call off the visit especially in the backdrop of lingering bitter memories of postponement of the visit by Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Liaqat Ali Khan to the USSR back in 1949. Despite the strong justification, the video footage of PM Imran Khan holding a 3-hour long luncheon meeting with President Putin on the fateful day will remain etched as an unpleasant memory in the minds of so many around the globe.
Can the subsequent decision by the government of Pakistan to stay neutral and abstain from voting on the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia for its act of aggression, calling for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, also be justified? The answer is not easy.
The resolution was passed with an overwhelming support of 141 countries. Only 5 countries including Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria opposed the resolution with 35 abstentions. Pakistan was one of those countries which chose to abstain from voting.
It is obvious from the tally that Pakistan is not siding with the overwhelming majority of the sovereign states on the planet. This is especially troubling because almost all of our traditional friends such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia voted for the resolution. In fact, Turkey and Qatar were among the co-sponsors of the resolution. On the other hand, China seems to be the only friend among the 35 countries which abstained on the resolution.
The analysis of our trade relations with the countries which sponsored or supported the resolution provides another angle to view Pakistan’s decision to stay neutral. USA is the largest importer of our goods and services which amount to over 17% of our total exports. The second largest importer of Pakistani exports is the European Union which absorbs more than 14% of our total exports. Pakistani exports with the block received a significant boost after EU granted the facility of Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) to Pakistan in 2013. UK is another major importer of Pakistani goods and buys more than 7% of our exports. Together these three entities constitute the destination for around 40% of our total exports.
Future prospects aside, our present trade with Russia is rather limited and both exports to and imports from Russia amount to less than 1% each of our total exports and imports respectively.
The so-called neutrality has the potential to seriously impact Pakistan’s national interest.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
We have around four million Pakistani diaspora in the US, Canada and Europe who send around 25% of $23 billion of foreign remittances to Pakistan every year. North American, European and Australian universities are the most favourite destinations for our students aspiring for higher education. The influence of the US and its allies is quite obvious in such multilateral agencies as the World Bank, IMF and FATF etc. The short and mid-term interests of Pakistan are therefore quite closely linked with the western block that stands firmly behind Ukraine.
There are clear signs that after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent state visit to Russia, the decision to not support the UN General Assembly resolution on Ukraine has not been well received in the North American and European capitals. 22 heads of the diplomatic missions in Islamabad recently wrote a rare joint letter to the government of Pakistan seeking support for the UN General Assembly resolution on Ukraine. Pakistan didn’t oblige. If we persist with the policy, there may be consequences relating to our long-term relations with these countries.
Besides the possible impact of our neutral stance on our relations with the countries generally referred to as the ‘Western World,’ a well-established principle of respecting the sovereignty of a country has been brazenly violated in the invasion of Ukraine. PM Imran Khan has been a strong critic of US drone attacks in Pakistani tribal areas because these had violated our sovereignty. Can Pakistan afford to remain oblivious to what happened in Ukraine and not even deplore the aggression?
Pakistan’s Foreign Office in particular and the government in general must have carefully weighed the options before adopting the policy of neutrality but democracies always provide an opportunity of oversight of such critical policies by its parliament. The so-called neutrality has the potential to seriously impact Pakistan’s national interest. The parliament and foreign relations committees in the Senate and National Assembly must perform their duty of oversight and debate the impact of the critical policy decisions taken by the executive in the context of the Russian action against Ukraine.
— The writer is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT; Tweets at @ABMPildat