At the present moment it is hard to predict the future foreign policy of most nations, with President Donald Trump’s entry into the Oval Office adding a new dimension to the manner in which decisions are taken and events assessed. Pakistan, so far, has been able to largely stay below Trump’s radar, with White House attention currently focused on the Middle East, ISIS and what he calls Islamic extremism.
There is reason to believe that the sudden decision by the Pakistan government to place Hafiz Muhammad Saeed under house arrest may have come as a direct consequence of a warning from Washington but there is no reason to believe this single action will in any way demonstrate a significant change in the manner in which Pakistan handles its affairs.
In India, there is an openly expressed view that this latest drama is another part of the “smoke and mirrors” game which has been played skilfully by Pakistan for the last eight years since a 2008 siege of Mumbai which led to at least 166 deaths. While New Delhi has repeatedly blamed Saeed and his Jamaat-ud-Dawa for the attack it seems to have failed to put any solid evidence out in the open, with Union Minister Rajnath saying days ago that Pakistan already had all the evidence it needed within its own country if it chose to look.
While the pressure from India on this and other matters is likely to continue, in line with the policies of the BJP government led by Narendra Modi, Pakistan has answers.
On the foreign policy front it has through 2016 strengthened its already strong relations with China, with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) beginning initial operations with the first consignments of goods moving to the Gwadar Port. Along with China, Pakistan has also been looking towards Russia, possibly planning the establishment of a new regional alliance which places it in the same circle as China, Russia and its close ally Iran. This could help Islamabad ward off the danger it faces as a result of the close linkage between Kabul and New Delhi.
The consequences of this partnership were made clear at the Heart of Asia conference held late last year at Amritsar where both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and senior Indian officials launched an uninhibited assault on Pakistan.
To protect itself Pakistan is clearly attempting to set up new barriers and new zones of protection. But there is also another strategy, which seems to be playing up. Islamabad will be hoping that Trump, despite his virulent attacks on Pakistan during his campaign, may prove to be willing to play a role as arbiter between Pakistan and India, notably on the Kashmir issue. He has hinted that he could take on this role and for Pakistan any outside help on handling its issues with India would clearly be welcomed.
This could also explain the Hafiz Saeed arrest, with Pakistan opting for a change in its line of delivery in the hope of keeping Washington poised as a potentially useful ally. Certainly, it will need Washington. No matter what other alliances it forges, there can be no denying the fact that the US remains a crucial partner for Pakistan in economic and strategic terms.
With this in mind, it could also be looking to a future in which Washington under Trump attempts to act as a stabilising influence in the region and tackle the India-Pakistan problem, which has helped form Pakistan’s essentially India-centric foreign policy for decades. A change in this approach towards a better unified region would essentially mean a hugely dramatic alteration in allegiances, alliances, and the manner in which events pan out.
The Saeed arrest then could be an attempt to plug in on this, although there is only limited effort, despite its military operation against militants begun in 2014, that Islamabad is fully committed to ending its long tryst with jihadi groups. In fact, at home it is understood that to save his organisation, Hafiz Saeed has already renamed it once again, effectively ending the existence of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa as a group.
While tackling the US, Pakistan will need to determine precisely how it handles Iran and also China. Both, in the map drawn up by Trump, lie within enemy territory. Iran, for Pakistan, could be a hugely important partner given its location and its ability to supply the much-needed fuel to the power-starved country.
But, undoubtedly, policy makers will be watching to see if a link with Iran could raise the wrath of an increasingly belligerent Washington from where the president of the country has spoken angrily down the phone line to one head of government after the other, adopting the posture of the typical school bully. Following its traditional pattern, Pakistan would wish to link up as the smaller partner of this bully.
The key question for the country will, however, remain the shaping of its relationship with India and also the nexus between India and Afghanistan. There have already been gestures from Islamabad suggesting it is ready for talks with India. The real question on this front is whether external powers can push India towards a more rational approach to its issues with Pakistan and towards the talks which are so badly needed.
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India’s own foreign policy is coming under increasing attack from within the country and this may be the factor that leads the Modi regime to making necessary changes in what has been a consistently hostile stance towards Pakistan. There is some evidence that the quiet exit of former army chief, General Raheel Sharif, may help construct a changed relationship.
Pakistan will also need to steer the ship carefully when it comes to transversing its relationship with China. China has become increasingly involved in giant economic projects within Pakistan. It has not yet totally replaced the US in terms of significance. Quite obviously, Washington is eager to prevent this at all costs.
For the strategy makers at Pakistan’s foreign office, which still lacks a foreign minister to oversee the making of policy, the key challenge will be to find a way to keep both China and the US in its camp while also considering new regional alliances so that it can hold its own against an increasingly powerful India with which Washington has already indicated it wishes to establish good terms and a growing relationship.
Much will depend on how the new White House team under Trump directs its Pakistan policy. So far, the country has been treated, at least in relative terms, kindly. But the words Trump has used for those harbouring extremists are not kind. The arrest of Hafiz Saeed was one attempt to end this opinion about Pakistan. We will need to see how many others follow in the coming few months, or quite possibly years.