Pakistan: In the eye of an epic regional dream
Something strange and beguiling is happening in Pakistan’s neighborhood. Even while consciously fashioning a more regional foreign policy focus over a global agenda, Pakistan is having an awkward moment with the United States. Even when sometimes it has wavered, Islamabad has traditionally been considered a political ally and a diplomatic partner of Washington on issues ranging from the fallout of 9/11 to dealing with Moscow, but these days it doesn’t seem that way, if the recent acerbic soundbites and actions emanating from the US are anything to go by.
Zalmay Khalilzad, former President Trump’s focal person on pre-Taliban Afghanistan with wide influence in Washington policy circles, has been for several weeks now tweeting slurs against Pakistan’s incumbent prime minister and army chief in defense of a politically beleaguered Imran Khan and his party. He has also been making dark mutterings of a regional war that will undo Pakistan.
Over 60 US Congress members have been likewise wading deep into Pakistan’s current political turmoil and issuing joint statements about imagined doomsday scenarios. And for several months now, Islamabad has been hoping against hope that the Washington-influenced IMF will release a badly needed tranche to ward off threats of sovereign default. Instead, IMF and Pakistan have been indulging in an unusual slanging match not about the economy but politics. Islamabad is abandoning its traditional foreign policy orbit.
If that happens, everyone in the region – from Russia and Central Asia to India and the Gulf to China – wins, unleashing arguably the largest global economic windfall in a century by way of an economic union that links half of all humanity together.
- Adnan Rehmat
As a counterbalance, Islamabad is deepening its otherwise grounded and excellent bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia and China both of whom are sticking by Pakistan in its hour of an unholy domestic crisis that has messed up its economy, politics and social order. Pakistan is also breaking other local self-taboos – buying oil from Russia and electricity from Iran besides activating other political, security and trade pacts.
The conscious strategic distancing by Islamabad from Washington and Europe in general and a conspicuous alignment with regional geostrategic developments is the central feature of a new policy shift that injects some rationality to Pakistan positioning itself internationally. In many ways this makes sense as this shift primes Islamabad to benefit from geostrategic convergence among Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and Iran. The only major sticking point is Islamabad’s comatose policy with India.
The question remains: Will Pakistan sustain this departure from its often ambivalent and sometimes contradictory tightrope diplomatic walk between polar global strategic opposites? One part of the answer is that its outgoing policy has delivered only limited dividends so there is no incentive in the status quo. Pakistan’s security establishment-dominated geostrategic policy goals in recent times have been centered on India (aiming to maintain a balance of power with India by keeping its military capabilities at par with India’s), China (seeking to strengthen strategic partnership with Beijing through the $57 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), Afghanistan (aiming to maintain influence in Afghanistan by supporting a government in Kabul that is friendly toward Islamabad) and Saudi Arabia (seeking to strengthen strategic ties with Riyadh).
Pakistan has not fared too well on most of these goals. It has failed to resolve the Kashmir issue with Delhi despite its efforts to internationalize it. With Afghanistan, Pakistan finds itself often identified with supporting the Taliban that don’t appeal to an international audience. With China, the CPEC has suffered delays linked to the previous government.
The growing wave of regional strategic developments involving common-ground convergences by most of the above countries, has opened a once-a-generation window of geostrategic opportunity that can allow Islamabad to correct its moribund policy course. It has already started paying dividends. Riyadh and Beijing have offset Islamabad economic woes by helping stave off economic collapse cushioning it against coercive IMF and Washington manipulation.
Additionally, last month Pakistani and Iranian heads of government opened three border markets and signed energy agreements, plus a $5 billion long-stalled gas pipeline that can be extended to India is likely to be back on track shortly. This month the first shipment of cheap crude oil from Russia arrives in Karachi. Only months ago, these steps would have evoked sanctions and anger from both Washington and regional capitals.
While there is reasonable expectation that these local developments will snowball to every regional power house’s benefit, its golden potential outcome would be that peace is brokered between Pakistan and India a la diplomatic normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And if that happens, everyone in the region – from Russia and Central Asia to India and from the Gulf to China – wins, unleashing arguably the largest global economic windfall in a century by way of a transit-and-trade economic union that links half of all humanity together. The stakes are high and there will be attempts externally to prevent this from happening.
— Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.