Islamabad’s new policy: A friendlier Pakistan

Islamabad’s new policy: A friendlier Pakistan

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After years of drift, Pakistan is shaking off its foolish and expensive indifference to the world of active diplomacy. With a new government in place finding its footing, Islamabad is coming round to the idea that there is value in being friendlier with its neighbors and other key global players.

This new approach ditches a security-centric and obdurate foreign policy of recent years that is bringing only diminishing returns in favor of progressive regional engagement centered on putting trade on the front burner and opting for mainstream internationalism.

This is a sharp turnaround from Tehran striking militarily into Pakistani territory in January and Islamabad immediately responding in kind with a startling missile burst deep into the Iranian mainland. In March, Pakistan rained missiles into Afghanistan after a string of militant attacks in Pakistan were blamed on Kabul’s inaction against militants.

These are not just instances of the world changing its approach to Islamabad. Pakistan has been making considered and considerable changes to its own outmoded worldview.

- Adnan Rehmat

And yet, within a week of the Iran-Pakistan military confrontation, Tehran sent its foreign minister to Islamabad to talk about cementing political and trade ties leading to an agreement to restart work on a long-stalled $7 billion gas pipeline. Likewise, within a fortnight of the Pakistan-Afghanistan confrontation, Kabul hosted a high-level trade delegation from Islamabad. Both promptly agreed to de-link politics and trade, reversing a long security-centric policy.

Another time and this quick turnaround in diplomatic mood was even unthinkable. Islamabad’s readiness to shun its traditional angry rhetoric and long diplomatic sulk for quick re-engagement and pragmatic approach to bilateral ties with testy neighbors is a distinct new policy framework.

There was more – pleasant – diplomatic drama. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in power for nearly a decade, broke with the Delhi policy of isolating Islamabad and reached out directly to his counterpart Shahbaz Sharif, congratulating him for taking office as prime minister in the first week of March. This was the first time in years that the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers talked to each other instead of talking down.

Then in the last week of March, President Biden wrote to Sharif – again the first time he had engaged with a Pakistani prime minister (and there have been three since he assumed office) – offering to reimagine ties through a bilateral trade, climate and energy prism. This is a departure from the US approach of viewing Pakistan through mainly an Afghanistan, India or China lens.

In recent weeks, Pakistani and Saudi political and military leaderships have also directly engaged and agreed to deepen what is already arguably Pakistan’s best bilateral relationship even if it underwent some wobbles in the last two years. Similarly, Islamabad and Moscow have also reconnected over the possibility of a long broached but perennially put-off visit by Russian President Putin to Pakistan to sign energy and trade deals. 

These are not just instances of the world changing its approach to Islamabad. Pakistan – mainly thanks to the redundancy of its nuclear power status in the face of an economic meltdown of biblical proportions – has been making considered and considerable changes to its own outmoded worldview.

Islamabad for months – even before the new government was sworn in and when Pakistan was going through a phase of bruising self-inflicted isolationism and introversion – has been quietly working to repair frazzled ties with Washington, Beijing, Riyadh and Moscow. It submitted to greater financial compliance of the stringent Financial Action Task Force regime and then the tough IMF terms for fiscal solvency. Most of this effort at reversing its fortunes included undoing the damage done by the astonishingly cavalier and casual diplomacy preferred by the government of Imran Khan who annoyed friends and foes in equal measure. 

Revising its worldview and diplomatic options by Pakistan is paying off now that these are being signalled formally by a government with a new five-year mandate that puts behind it the particularly dark and prolonged bouts of political and economic uncertainty that had put off the world.

Whether Islamabad manages to sustain this approach remains to be seen. But the seriousness of the new foreign policy can be viewed through two indicators. One, the ruling coalition’s former finance minister is the new foreign minister, implying that Pakistan wants to align its foreign policy with its economic realities.

Two, the federal cabinet has formally discussed restoring diplomatic ties with India downgraded by the Khan government and delinking its bilateral political disputes with trade and commerce. While it is too early to see this materializing to its optimal potential, the fact that continued political confrontation has damaged Islamabad majorly is its own justification. 

Pakistan is finally on the right track. In a world affected by major ongoing wars, there is little appetite for entertaining complex bilateral grievances of countries like Pakistan. Putting the economy first makes sense as it focuses on common interests that pay prompt dividends for all parties engaged in trade. Aligning its economic goals with its politics will put Pakistan’s new foreign policy on a surer footing. 

- Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1

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