The 3 As — Allah, the Army and America — often used as a tongue-in-cheek remark to explain Pakistan’s predicament and course in international relations is perhaps not too far from the truth. Defying all odds, ranging from pecuniary troubles to political instability and terrorism, the country prides itself in its resilience and buoyancy — what keeps it afloat is divine will.
The army comes next — its most powerful institution that wields the greatest amount of influence and control over decision-making. Lastly, there is America — the global superpower, the benevolent oppressor with which Pakistan has a love-hate relationship.
For such sketchy variables to provide an accurate sense of a country’s direction alone is a troubling matter. In the absence of empowered democratic institutions that should be concerned with complex foreign policy decisions that entail taking a holistic view of regional and global economic and political trends, there is little that can be said about reaping the advantages of globalisation.
The recent souring of relations with the US, a very significant component of the troika, over the F-16 deal and aid blockage issue, while not an unusual occurrence given the history of the Pak-US dynamic, comes at a very critical point in time.
The evolving regional security environment must be taken into account. This means appreciating the various contours of security and not letting concerns related to traditional security dominate the narrative. Economic security is a current theme in the exchange between countries in the world of international relations.
While due to the military’s dominance in decision-making Pakistan looks at world events through the lens of traditional security, globally even the figurative Sino-US war is being fought to a great extent in the international economic arena. The US’ policy of the encirclement of China, Pakistan’s all-weather friend, means a lot more than just bolstering up military presence in the Pacific.
The US is taking keen interest in validating its ‘Pivot to the East’ policy by strengthening economic ties with countries in the region. This is an effective response to the criticism that the US becomes involved in faraway places where it has no direct economic interest. During Obama’s last year in office, strengthening ties with Japan, Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia and Taiwan has assumed great importance.
Pakistan, on the other hand, is celebrating 65 years of rock solid bilateral ties with China and engaged in building the historic CPEC project worth $46bn. While China and the US may have the economic and military muscle to speak from positions of parity when they engage, for Pakistan to hold its ground and safeguard its interests is a huge challenge.
Even with the landmark project to build a trade and economic corridor with China, the secrecy surrounding it is leading many to argue that Pakistan despite having the access that China needs will be unable to protect its interests.
Pakistan’s arch-rival, India, is being prepped up to serve as a counter-weight to China; there has been a convergence in interests between the US and India. Of late, the evolution of this relationship into a strategic partnership has picked pace and when finally Obama leaves office, ties between the two countries will have been transformed effectively.
Bilateral defence trade today stands at nearly $14 billion and naval exercises have become an annual feature with India conducting more military exercises with the US than any other country, and the collaboration on defence equipment under the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) is in place. It is a mere coincidence that Modi’s scheduled upcoming visit to the US is taking place at a time when Pakistan’s relations with the US are at a low ebb. It is likely that issues such as India’s NSG membership will be discussed during the visit.
What about Pakistan? How is it dealing with these seismic changes? “In Pakistan, there is complete policy confusion at the moment. You have an issue with the US and then there is an issue with the Afghan Taliban leadership. There is lack of a sense of direction and it seems that Pakistan is being isolated in the region,” says Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi, senior analyst.
The only exception is Pakistan’s relationship with China. “But, a single country relationship cannot substitute for having multiple relationships. Dependence on China now after dependence on the US for so long cannot prove to be a wise decision. Being dependent on a single country limits the options that a country has in foreign policy,” he explains.
He believes that in today’s world, “economic relations are the primary set of relationship; this allows you to become relevant for positive consideration. It is important that you are known in the world for economic relations rather than just being associated with terrorism.”
Rizvi argues that Pakistani leadership should go beyond merely providing lip-service vis-à-vis engaging neighbouring countries in the economic realm. “Either you should be economically so powerful that you dictate the economic system. If not, then you should appraise the existing system — see what forces are dictating it and how you would best protect your interests.”
Talat Masood, senior commentator, points out the context in which the Pak-US relationship has been built and what it is likely to be in the future — the huge power imbalance between the two and Pakistan’s financial dependence on the US, both directly and through international lending institutions such as the IMF.
“What are Pakistan’s goals?” he asks.
“They are so linear because the military dominates the policy and it has a tendency of only considering the security aspect in which, of course, India looms so large that Pakistan’s policy towards any country in the world, including the US is dominated by the Indian factor,” he adds.
In his opinion, this orientation and the civil-military power imbalance is the cause of many of Pakistan’s problems in the realm of traditional security.
He, too, holds the view that the current path Pakistan is taking by only cultivating a strong partnership with China pushes it further into isolation. He argues that Pakistan needs to learn to engage with other countries in a cooperative manner. “Even the US has a hostile rivalry with China but there is a cooperative sentiment there,” he states.
He argues that there is no way of stopping India from developing strong relations with the US, the only way is to step up Pakistan’s foreign policy game by empowering democratic institutions to have a debate on foreign policy matters and responding to the challenge.
“Despite the problems in Pak-US relations, the US understands that Pakistan is a very important regional player. They don’t want to lose Pakistan. Look at the kind of statements that come out: we would like to continue our partnership with Pakistan,” he says.
Though Pakistan and the US may be passing through another rocky phase in their relationship, the interests with respect to restoration of peace and stability in Afghanistan and the war against terrorism are similar if not identical. The correction of the internal civil-military imbalance, strong and diversified relations with regional players and self-reliance will benefit Pakistan immensely especially in the foreign policy realm.