COMMENTARY
 
Pakistan’s Foreign Policy under the New Regime
Weekly Pulse
April 25-May 1, 2008
Domestic political and security challenges facing Pakistan are so grave that the PPP-led coalition government should be expected to take a while before kick-starting any significant shift in the country’s foreign policy. However, since some of these challenges, especially relating to internal security, seem to be a by-product of the country’s conduct in external affairs, the government cannot afford an indefinite delay in realizing such a shift in foreign policy.

Perhaps the biggest foreign policy challenge that the new government faces is how to balance national interest with public sentiments insofar as the core areas of Pakistan’s foreign policy are concerned. These include tackling terrorism comprehensively, pursuing strategic pragmatism in ties with China, realising a dignified peace with India over Kashmir, and adopting an external agenda that is essentially driven by economic interests.

Continuity and Change

There are some constants in Pakistan’s foreign policy, such as the role the country plays, or aspires to play, in the affairs of the Muslim world; or, for that matter, Pakistan’s ties with China, which have stood the test of times. Core areas of Pakistan’s foreign policy that have radically changed recently include, for instance, the policy on Kashmir: in the process of pursuing peace with India since the start of 2004, Islamabad abandoned its principal stand on the resolution of the dispute based on the UN Security Council resolutions.

Nothing is, and should be, static about foreign policy. We live in a fast changing and glaobalizing world. Radical developments occur at the global and regional stage, requiring recurrent re-adjustments in a country’s external ties. In a realistic world, each country, however great or small, is supposed to keep its national interest supreme over everything else while pursuring international relationships. However, there are always some domestic and external constraints on a weaker country’s ability to realise foreign policy goals, which are genuinely reflective of national interests as well as public sentiments.

Foreign policy challenges facing the new government must be seen in this conceptual backdrop and recent context. So far, Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi has preferred continuity over change in foreign policy, arguing, as he did in a PTV interview on April 8, “it is not possible to make an overnight change in the foreign policy,” as it is made “on the basis of long term strategic interests by keeping in view the regional and global conditions.”

The Foreign Minister said that a new government might give input in the already existing policy but it would not be an appropriate step to reject it outrightly. However, Mr Qureshi did say in that interview that “democratic government will make foreign policy consistent with peoples’s aspirations by taking the stakeholder on board.”

National Interest and Public Sentiment

In general Pakistani public perception, the principal flaw in the country’s foreign policy during over eight years of General Pervez Musharraf’s rule is that not only the national interest, as proclaimed by the state, has not matched with public sentiments—for instance, in the case of the frontline role the country has played in the US-led War on Terror—but also that, in the guise of national interest, General Pervez Musharraf has attempted to cultivate his self-interest.

Moreover, the country’s foreign policy has remained dominated by a single issue: that of terrorism. Its consequences have been quite grave, especially in terms of aggravating domestic security situation and consistent political crisis at home. A great power such as the United States backing a single leader, who lacked people-rooted ethno-political powerbase—and that leader, in turn, fullfilling this great power’s neo-conservative counter-terror agenda based exclusively on the use of force—has created a highly untenable situation.

In retrospect, therefore, it is abdundantly clear that while the coalition government undertakes the process of reinforcing civilian will in domestic state affairs, it cannot overlook the other crucial leg of the same process: that of democratising the country’s external outloook and relationship.

The foremost question before it is how to realise a foreign policy that serves both national interest and meets public aspirations simultaneously. Democracy is the only system that guarantees such a possibility. During this civilian era, we can expect the foreign policy making process to place greater emphasis on incorporating public opinion, enhancing parliamentary input and allowing Foreign Office to play its due role in decision making and implementation. We can also expect that a single issue-driven foreign policy will be replaced with an approach to external relations that re-prioritises issues in accordance with their respective significance and relevance to national interest and public aspirations.

Core Areas of Foreign Policy

Democratising Pakistan’s foreign policy under a democratic dispensation requires bringing about changes in its core areas, including a) adopting a new approach to the US-led War on Terror; b) pursuing strategic pragmatism in Pakistan’s ties with China; c) realising a dignified peace with India over Kashmir; d) impproving the country’s ties with Afghanistan and Iran; e) playing a proactive role in Muslim world affairs; and f) adopting an external agenda that is essentially driven by economic interests.

New Approach to US-led War on Terror

Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani has already declared that Pakistan will adopt a “comprehensive approach” in its policy towards the US-led War on Terror, which has been the single most important issue determining Pakistan’s relationship with the United States since the events of 9/11. This comprehensive approach should include a host of economic and political initiatives and give less importance to solving a complex problem such as terrorism through the use of military force alone. We can understand the frustration of the Bush Administration, which, guided by its neo-conservative, unilateral global ambitions, prefered to counter terror by force alone. The reason its top officials, such as Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, have tried so hard to convince the coalition partners of the new democratic government to keep General Musharraf in power is because the Bush Administration still wishes that Pakistan should continue to prefer the use of force over other non-military instruments in countering extremism and terrorism.

However, since such a policy does not meet public sentiments and its implications have hurt the country’s national interest particularly in the domestic security and political sphere, the new democratic leadership has decided to abandon previous policy of countering terrorism by force alone. Depending upon the response of the pro-Taliban forces to its peace offer, the government will nonetheless consider the option of exercising force, but only as a last resort.

The new Pakistani leadership, however, will be looking with extreme interest as to what the outcome of the US Presidential elections in November this year will be. If Democratic Party wins these elections, then counter-terrorism policy preferences of Pakistan and the United States based on economic development of extremism-ridden regions and political dialogue with pliable extremists will match. Already, ther Democrats-dominated US Congress is favorably considering a proposal to give Pakistan around $7 billion in economic aid.

Even otherwise, de-militarising the War on Terror means reducing its over all influence in the foreign policy domain. This means the new leadership will be able to devote suifficient time and energy to deal with other core areas of foreign policy where realising speedy progress is extremely important from the point of both national interest and public aspirations.

Strategic Pragmatism in Ties with China

Foreign Minister Qureshi recently accompanied General Musharraf to China. From his statements during and after the visit, it is clear that the new government, like all of its predecessors in the past nearly five decades, attaches great importance with the country’s strategic partnership with China.

Over time, however, this relationship has come of age and, from the Chinese perspective, become more pragmatic and economic interests-driven. China’s role in Pakistan's economic development is extremely crucial. In the past few years, China has invested billions of dollars in important sectors of Pakistan’s economy such as telecom and infrastructure building.

More importantly, China is Pakistan’s key partner in the development of the Gawadar Port, which is likely to become a valuable investment for China as it will provide it with an easy access to the Gulf region for the export of its products as well as import of oil and gas. For its part, Pakistan aspires for Chinese help in overcoming its acute energy shortage, and, for that, it wants China to build a few more peaceful nuclear reactors. In the near future, the government will have to sort out problems vis-à-vis Pakistan’s Free Trade Agreement with China.

Pakistan has also offered to extend the the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline to China, which itself needs more enregy for its fast expanding economy. By all accounts, the Sino-Pak ties have entered a pragmatic stage, where idealistic foundations of the past do play a role but are dominated by the two country’s genuine economic needs.

Dignified peace with India on Kashmir

General Musharraf did kick-start the peace process with India at the start of 2004. However, in the process, he made unnecessary unilateral concessions to India on the issue of Kashmir. This is how Pakistan’s India policy during the Musharraf era is popularly perceived, and rightly so.

It is good that both Prime Minister Gillani and Foreign Minister Qureshi have declared that Pakistan stands for a just and equitable settlement of the Kashmir issue. On April 24, the Prime Minister said the government would continue to support the Kashmiri cause till the resolution of the dispute. Earlier, the Foreign Minister had stated that there was no change in the country’s position on Kashmir, and that it wanted the issue to be resolved in accordance with its “historic stand,” implictelty refering to UN resolutions on Kashmir.

Now under democracy, Pakistan is in a much stronger position to mutually discuss and resolve the Kashmir dispute with democratic India. Reecent years have seen considerable growth in both trade and cultural exchanges between the two countries—a trend that is likely to pick up momentum under the new democratic regime. Both PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif and PPP Co-Chairman Asif Zardari have pubclicly stated their intention to to work on the idea of dropping visa requirements between the two neighbors.

Enhancing people-to-people contacts is important for peace between India and Pakistan. However, simultaneously, without resolving core issues like Kashmir in a fair and dignified manner, the peace process will only produce an unstable peace climate, a precarious situation that can be reversed anytime by forces working against Indo-Pak peace.

Improving Ties with Afghanistan and Iran

Improving ties with Pakistan’s two other neighbours, Afghanistan and Iran, is another area of foreign policy the new government has to concenmtrate on. The Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai has responed positively to the government’s conditional offer to negotiate with the Taliban.

The new government has to extend its hands of friendship to its Afghan counterpart, because the country’s ties with Afghanistan during the Musharraf era have really suffered, primarily because of the alleged linkage of pro-Taliban forces based in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and their role in Afghan insurgency. The level of trust that should be there between two neighbouring Muslim states was not possible, because each one was passing the buck on the other for problems that actually had internal roots. One hopes that with the rise of democrats in Pakistan, the Afghan complaints about Taliban infiltration across the Durand Line from Pakistan’s tribal eras will be over, as the former will engage more actively in breaking the nexus between various pro-Taliban forces in the country.

Pakistan’s ties with Iran are equally important, underscored by the recent stopover of Iranian President Ahmadinejad in Islamabad. The basis of growing ties between the two countries is the proposed gas pipeline that is to reach India through Pakistan from southern Iran (also known as the IPI - Iran, Pakistan & India pipeline).

The idea has been on table for a long time e now. However, given Iran’s growing economic isolation and the need to earn valuable foreign exchange through its massive gas reserves and India’s soaring demand for gas as well as Pakistan's need to earn the much needed transit fee, the project is likely to materialize in the near future. Faced with an acute energy crisis, Pakistan must be relived by Iran’s offer of supplyling 1100 MW of electricity. The economic basis of this relationship aside, Islamabad needs to pursue a cautious policy when it comes to Iran’s nuclear issue or Iran’s overall political approach to Middle Eastern conflicts and deeply strained relations with the United States. These are issues peculiar to Iran and its conduct in regional and international affairs since the 1979 revolution, which clashes with the interests of the United States, Israel and Arab regimes.

Proactive Role in Muslim World

Since its creation, and especially in recent years, Pakistan has proactively engaged in the affairs of the Muslim world. It is an important actor in chalking out the future vision of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), which itself is trying to assert in world politics.

Whether it it is the country’s historic ties with Saudi Arabia, or lasting friendship with Turkey and Malaysia or, for that matter, ties with almost all the Muslim countries who matter, especially those in the Middle East or Gulf region, the pursuit of any bilateral and multilateral initiative that strengthens Pakistan’s clout in the Muslim world is important.

Realizing an ever-growing role of the country in the affairs of the Muslim world is a foreign policy constant that the new government inherits from the previous regime in particular and all those who came before it.

Economic Interests-Driven Agenda

Finally, in an age where economic growth and development has become the yardstick against which all governments and their performance is measured, the new government has to take all of steps while keeping the current domestic economic crisis in mind. Such steps should help Pakistan overcome its deepening economic crisis.

Apart from economic issue becoming a top priority in all of the core foreign policy areas identified above, strengthening economic, trade and investment ties with the Gulf region and the European Union (EU) would be important. Gulf countries have become richer with more oil wealth, and they have already invested heavily in Pakistan. More of this investment is likely to come, and the new government is expected to make all possible attempts for the purpose, especially in reaching out to the country’s foremost political allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The EU is Pakistan’s second largest trading partner after the United States. However, Pakistan’s textile exports to the EU have suffered due to its increasing protectionism in recent years. A democratic government is better placed to lobby for the elimination of such curbs before a grouping of 28 countries that values democracy, human rights and fair play in international relations.

However, since the United States is Pakistan’s leading partner in economic and trade spheres, and because the two countries are closely linked in the counter-terrorism campaign, the new government will look towards Washington for more economic help.

Access column at weeklypulse.org