Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government is facing many challenges, but those related to Pakistan’s foreign policy are more complex owing to its limitations in introducing any changes and course correction on its own.
In the wake of the perception highlighted by many opposition politicians and also some analysts that Pakistan is facing isolation not only in the region but also in the world, one won’t be wide off the mark in saying that the foreign policy is under some kind of review. The government has been denying that Pakistan is isolated, but it would still be useful for the country to consider the available options to reinforce old friendships and cultivate new friends.
Such an exercise was long overdue, but it is possible it was necessitated by the recent events when India led the boycott of the 19th summit of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) that was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in the first week of October. It cleverly used the ‘terrorism’ issue in the wake of the militants’ attack on the Indian Army camp in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir not only to blame Pakistan for its role in the incident, but also turn the international attention away from its use of strong-arm tactics to tackle the indigenous and peaceful uprising of the Kashmiri people demanding ‘azadi’ (freedom) and the right of self-determination.
Small and landlocked Bhutan, whose foreign policy is controlled by India, predictably followed suit to be soon joined by Afghanistan and Bangladesh, two of the biggest recipients of Indian largesse in the shape of financial assistance. Sri Lanka was left with no choice but to stay away as well because it otherwise would have earned India’s wrath. It was subsequently inconsequential whether SAARC’s present chair, Nepal in its capacity as the host of the previous summit, or tiny Maldives attended or boycotted the Islamabad event because under the organisation’s charter no summit can be held even if one member-state stayed away.
Nepal and Pakistan decided to call off the Islamabad summit, though the latter insisted it has been postponed and not cancelled. The chances of holding the SAARC summit in Pakistan after sometime appear low as it would depend on improvement in India-Pakistan relations and that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. India is bent upon materialising its public threat to isolate Pakistan and it is unlikely to attend SAARC summit in Pakistan for the foreseeable future. It may have caused some embarrassment to Pakistan by getting the Islamabad summit postponed, but the loss isn’t Pakistan’s alone as SAARC as a regional organisation and the whole of South Asia are the eventual losers in this tussle of bloated egos.
To add to the complexity of the situation in our restive sub-continent, relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan are bitter and hostile following Islamabad’s repeated public condemnation of Dhaka’s decision to controversially put on trial and execute six pro-Pakistani politicians, including five from Jamaat-i-Islami and one from former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s BNP, for alleged war crimes during the Awami League-led war of independence in the former East Pakistan.
Besides, the relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are also unfriendly and there is little hope of any positive development in the relationship as long as the Afghan conflict pitting the Taliban against the Afghan government remains unresolved. Afghanistan under President Ashraf Ghani has decisively taken sides in the Indo-Pak conflict by joining the Indian camp and effectively ending hopes of any Pakistan-mediated Afghan peace process.
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Pakistanis have forever been agonizing how the country would have fared had it refrained from aligning itself closely with the United States of America and, in the process, moving away from the erstwhile USSR during the ‘Cold War’ period. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and first the decline and lately the rise of Russia, Pakistan continued to stay in the US camp, thereby ruling out any rapprochement with Moscow.
The situation seems to be slowly changing with Pakistan making a renewed effort to befriend Russia and the latter responding positively, apparently due to its old ally India’s decision to move closer to the US and on account of the on-again, off-again familiar chill in Pak-US relations.
It has been the wish of many Pakistanis that their country should have maintained an equidistance from Washington and Moscow, more so due to the fact that Russia is a near neighbour compared to America located far away in another continent. Many people still ask why Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan didn’t pay a visit to the Soviet Union when invited before he visited the US in May 1950. Liaquat Ali Khan’s claim that the invitation to visit the Soviet Union on August 14, 1949 was unsuitable as it was Pakistan’s Independence Day looks strange as the dates could have been changed after mutual consultation.
President Ayub Khan eventually visited the Soviet Union in 1965 and Moscow helped mediate a truce between India and Pakistan in Tashkent after the two neighbouring countries had gone to war over Kashmir. Later, the Soviet Union financed the setting up of the Pakistan Steel Mills, the biggest industrial complex to-date in Pakistan.
Whether it was a mistake by Liaquat Ali Khan or the outcome of Pakistan ruling elite’s perennial preference for all things Western, Pakistan’s decision to shun the Soviet Union and throw in its lot with the US by becoming the member of the anti-USSR military alliances, such as the Baghdad Pact, SEATO and CENTO antagonised Moscow and caused deep distrust with Islamabad. The mistrust still hasn’t been overcome though the intensity of their mutual animosity has decreased. There now seem to be an urge to try and improve relations, or at least ensure that these are no longer unfriendly.
The recent joint Pakistan-Russia military exercises named “Druzbah” and held in Pakistan were the first time that the two armies trained together and exchanged skills. It also reinforced the prospects of defence cooperation between the formerly rival states. Russia went ahead with this initiative despite Indian opposition and it could become a regular feature as Pakistan tries to diversify its arms purchases by buying weapons from Russia, Ukraine and other countries, instead of depending too much on an unreliable partner, such as the US.
China is already a trusted friend of Pakistan and their already strong defence ties have become stronger. Though Pakistan won’t stop making efforts to improve relations with the US despite their growing clash of interest over issues, such as its nuclear programme and Afghanistan’s future, it is aware that unlike the past America now prefers India over it.