Pakistan’s foreign policy approach: Balancing among global stakeholders

Pakistan’s foreign policy approach: Balancing among global stakeholders

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The foreign policy of Pakistan has been primarily driven by its ideological ethos but has also been impacted upon by the personalities of the country’s civil and military ruling elites. Pakistan’s geographical presence at the crossroads of West, Central and South Asia has also informed the country’s foreign policy making. Furthermore, the country’s endemic rivalry with its eastern neighbor India and the issue of Kashmir have remained at the centre of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Civilian and military rulers even harboring different political and ideological views often approached this particular foreign policy file in a similar manner and attempts to enact a rapprochement with India came with political costs. With the rise of India as at least a regional great power and the transformation of the unipolar world order into a multipolar one, foreign policy strategies homed in by Pakistan’s foreign policy elites during the cold war and later during the war on terror have become redundant and need a thorough appraisal. 

At the time of independence, Pakistan’s ruling elites understood that in order to ensure the defense and development needs of the new nation and to survive against the threat posed by India, they had to align themselves with a global power. The state visit of Pakistan’s first premier Liaquat Ali Khan to the United States was pivotal in this regard as it established Pakistan’s foreign policy trajectory and pushed this new nation into the Western Camp. This political engagement was further institutionalized as Pakistan became a member of two western led security alliances, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954 and Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in 1955. This commenced the era of alliances in Pakistan’s foreign policy which only ended with the 1962 border war between India and China and an American rapprochement with India.  

Pakistan’s decision makers realized that this dependency on a single global hegemon had not provided them with significant dividends particularly vis-à-vis Kashmir and thereby a zero-sum foreign policy approach was counter-productive. This led to the initiation of the era of bilateralism within Pakistan’s foreign policy. The policy was the brainchild of Pakistan’s then foreign minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who advocated to diversify Pakistan’s foreign relations and it was in this vein that the then Pakistani President Field Marshall Ayub Khan visited Soviet Union in 1965.  

Pakistan needs to sustain the breakthrough in its relationship with Russia, owing to a shared vision of regional connectivity and peace in Afghanistan but also because of Russia’s stature as a critical player in energy and food markets.

Umar Karim

After the breakup of Pakistan and with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto now the country’s prime minister, Pakistan’s foreign engagement did chart a course of diversification and for the first time Pakistan developed strong ties with the broader Muslim and Arab world. However, the removal of PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in a coup d’état by the military and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 decisively put Pakistan back in the American camp. With the end of cold war Pakistan’s strategic relevance for the US gradually declined. Attempts at engagement with the newly independent Central Asian States and creating a new political block didn’t materialize mainly due to Islamabad’s Afghan policy. Similarly, the idea of strategic depth with reference to a post-Soviet Afghanistan also proved to be rather imaginative. The 9/11 attacks did restore Pakistan’s strategic relevance with the US but fundamental differences between the two sides on the Afghan end game kept the relationship transactional.  

This state of affairs inadvertently increased Pakistan’s engagement and dependence upon its northern neighbor China, which gradually became the single most important source of foreign investment in the country after the initiation of China Pakistan Economic Corridor Project in 2013. China also emerged as Pakistan’s main defence partner as it became increasingly difficult to acquire arms from the US which eventually also suspended its military aid to Pakistan. These burgeoning tensions with the US also pushed Pakistan to initiate a charm offensive towards Russia which resulted in the lifting of Russian arms embargo on Pakistan. This trend reached its peak under the government of Imran Khan, as Pakistan moved closer to the Chinese and Russian camps while the relationship with US became dysfunctional. 

As Pakistan’s current strategic outlook still very much revolves around balancing against India, it cannot be denied that China remains the only global partner willing to work alongside Pakistan in the political, defence and economic domains to achieve that end. Thereby, maintaining strong and functional ties with China should remain Pakistan’s utmost priority. However, such an approach as has been the case with the previous government should not come at the cost of the country’s relationship with US, which remains Pakistan’s largest export market and can impact upon Pakistan’s engagement with the International Financial Organisations. Similarly, Pakistan also needs to sustain the breakthrough in its relationship with Russia, owing to shared vision of regional connectivity and peace in Afghanistan but also because of Russia’s stature as a critical player in energy and food markets.  

Pakistan’s foreign policy makers need to devise a comprehensive foreign policy regime and to balance all geopolitical poles. Only then can Pakistan insure its survival as a sovereign state entity within South Asia.  

- 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, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89

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