The bitter home truth about our (Pakistan’s) foreign policy is that none of the major political parties can deny the opening narrative of the PML-N’s manifesto for the 2013 general election: “Pakistan today is at war within, while isolated abroad. Its independence and sovereignty stand compromised, its economic weaknesses are forcing us to go with a begging bowl in hand, while foreign states undertake unilateral strikes on its territory and non-state actors use it as a sanctuary to pursue their own agendas, oblivious to Pakistan’s national interests”. We have been muddling along on a ‘passage to nowhere’ because of the self-serving agendas of both our civil and military rulers alike.
Pakistan’s geographical location is a strategic asset rather than a liability; the ‘Strategic Vision’ must rebalance the geo-strategic and geo-economic priorities. This can only flow from a coherent ‘national security strategy’; we have none! Briefing the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs on June 25, the prime minister’s adviser on foreign policy, Mr Sartaj Aziz, said: “the top priority would be accorded to the country’s own security rather than the agendas and priorities of other countries… and that a policy of non-interference in the affairs of other countries can make this possible.” Given the willingness of our rulers to sell the country down the river for their own survival, are these crucial caveats possible?
Since our (Pakistan’s) political parties are not on the same page about some of our foreign policy considerations, a ‘common minimum agenda’ must be drafted. We must decrease our dependence on others, the core objective being economic revival and sustained development, political differences notwithstanding. We must eschew our populist rhetoric to reduce the gap between the expectations of our people and the reality. Without energy, we cannot have manufacturing; without manufacturing, economic development is not possible. Pursuing expansion of investment and trade (and not aid), resolving the energy crisis must be a priority. Eliminating extremism will mean peace within and on our borders.
Pakistan is not only a geopolitical bridge from the North to the South, but also a geo-economic corridor connecting the East with the West. From Gwadar to Kashgar in China, Central Asia and West Asia, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) underlines our strong relations with China. The CPEC is a ‘game-changer’ for expanding regional trade and investment, energy infrastructure and economic integration. The Ukraine crisis and the Western sanctions gives us a geopolitical opportunity as Russia (with China’s support) attempts to integrate Eurasia into the world economy. Closer ties with the Asean countries, Africa and Latin America will open new avenues for economic cooperation.
Whoever crafted the enduring delusion that Afghanistan gives us ‘strategic depth’ was a no-brainer; presently, it only gives us strategic headaches. Intensified dialogue with Kabul could help minimize the use of territory against each other and reduce the trust deficit. Constructive engagement could also ensure effective border management and revenue generation from transit trade, the return of three million Afghan refugees and facilitate counter-narcotics operations.
While increased trade and economic linkages with India is necessary, peace is not possible without resolving outstanding disputes, including Kashmir and the water issue. Unless a genuine and credible process addresses mutual concerns, meaningful change in the relationship will remain elusive.
We must also transform our relationship with the US by challenging the narrative; we are simply not getting our message across. The US is a key partner not only in trade and investment, but for enhanced defence and security considerations, particularly in countering terrorism. Our nuclear status must be given the same recognition as India’s. To fill the impending vacuum in the region, the US must treat us as a partner rather than a supplicant.
The Muslim world is central to Pakistan’s foreign policy, with excellent relations with Saudi Arabia at the very core. Continuing engagement with ECO, Saarc, OIC and Asean countries is important in both the global and regional context, traditional ties with the UAE, Malaysia, Qatar and Bahrain must be expanded. Can we gloss over our special relationship with Bangladesh and benefit each other by introducing a no-visa no-tariffs regime?
Looking after the Pakistani community abroad, our foreign missions must mobilize their potential to advance our national interests. Our diplomats must pursue balanced relationships, eschewing involvement in issues where our direct interests are not at stake. We need to build a grand national narrative and project a soft image to enhance our international stature.
The diplomatic space must enhance our foreign policy options, the core elements of foreign policy imperatives remaining constructive engagement, non-interference and advancement of economic cooperation.
The writer is a leading defense and political analyst of Pakistan. He can be contacted at email@example.com