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Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Challenges

Sumita Kumar is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 28, 2013

    The new government in Pakistan will have to take some hard decisions on difficult issues pertaining to foreign policy, even though the choices will be very limited. Numerous complexities will emerge not only in its dealings with its immediate neighbours like Afghanistan and China, but also external players in the sub-continent, predominantly the US.

    As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the most difficult challenge for the new Pakistani leadership will be how to manage the situation post-2014, and how best to guard its interests. Within a year, two things are expected to happen: fresh elections for the Afghan President and the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan. In a situation where Karzai is not very popular either with the non-Pashtuns or with the Taliban, Nawaz Sharif will have an onerous task to ensure that the next president is acceptable to Pakistan, and will help in safeguarding Pakistan’s interests. The second part of the challenge will be the roadblocks to the reconciliation process and how Nawaz Sharif will influence the final outcome – whether he will continue to give support to the Taliban, which will not be acceptable to the Americans or to Karzai, or whether he will try to accommodate the non-Pashtuns and non-Taliban Pashtuns to arrive at a durable solution. The core interest of Pakistan will be the same, to ensure that a pro-Pakistan dispensation is in place once the Americans leave. Whether or not to support the Taliban will be a difficult choice.

    The Afghan conundrum and Pakistan’s response to it will shape the attitude of the US towards Pakistan, giving rise to challenges. If there is no change in policy with regard to the Taliban, and the Sharif government also continues to support the Taliban and remains guided by the army or ISI, then it is going to earn the ire of the US. This may be circumvented to an extent, if the US and Pakistan reach an understanding about giving the Taliban a role in government. The issue of drone attacks will acquire salience. Only if the Pakistan government is able to control militants from the FATA area and prevent them from attacking Afghanistan, can the Americans be expected to stop launching the drone attacks. If not, the drone attacks are likely to continue. This would create problems within Pakistan, given the immense opposition to drone attacks within the country. In the run up to the elections, it became apparent that both the PML (N) and the PTI considered drone attacks as being undesirable. Relations between Pakistan and the US are likely to remain tense. This will have a bearing on continued economic and military aid from the US which is important elements in the two countries relationship. The Afghanistan situation, the condition on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and the ability of the Sharif government to control the militants will determine the overall nature of Pakistan-US relations. Nawaz Sharif realising the importance of the American relationship will try to remove misgivings, even though there will be limitations to it.

    China has been a traditional source of military hardware for Pakistan and has invested in areas like telecommunications, ports and infrastructure. Efforts are on to explore trade and investment opportunities. China has taken operational control of the Gwadar port and continues cooperation in the nuclear field. At the same time, the Chinese have strong reservations about militancy in Pakistan and militancy emanating from Pakistan which has been creating problems in its Xinjiang province. Yet, this problem is unlikely to jeopardise relations between the two countries. They are also concerned about the situation in Afghanistan. Despite the all weather friendship, Pakistan cannot rely on China to bail it out economically. In some areas, China has not been as forthcoming as expected by Pakistan. Pakistan has been in need of economic aid, but it has become apparent that China is not catering to this need of Pakistan, given its obvious reluctance to cough up aid and budgetary assistance. However, the strategic aspect of the relationship will remain strong because of China’s own interests. While there is consensus within Pakistan about its relationship with China, this is not so about its relationship with the US. There is no doubt about the close cooperation between Pakistan and China and the future trajectory of that relationship, given China’s support for Pakistan diplomatically. Problems over extremism flowing from Pakistan, and unmet expectations for aid would remain minor irritants in that relationship.

    Basically, one should not expect any drastic change in the foreign policy orientation of Pakistan, because Pakistan’s geopolitical interests will not allow the new government to bring about radical change. Unless ofcourse: (1) it controls the domestic militants with a heavy hand, and (2) the new government decides to support a representative elected government in Afghanistan (supports the President and the cabinet of the President which would be representative of the members of the former Northern Alliance as well as the Pashtuns), and does not rely only on the Taliban.

    Civilian oversight on security policies can perhaps be expected to be stronger than before, given Nawaz Sharif’s political stature and the broad-based mandate from the people. Yet, to imagine that the army will not have much of a role will be unrealistic, as policies will have to be carried forward by the army. Hence, the civilian government and the army will have to work in tandem.

    If there is scope for change, perhaps it is only with India, as Nawaz Sharif could give an assurance that he will not allow terrorism emanating from Pakistan’s soil, and will take some action against the Mumbai culprits. Also, as a businessman, Sharif attaches more importance to improving trade relations with India. Given the knowledge that US and China cannot be reliable partners to bailout Pakistan in an economic crisis, there is greater scope for change in attitude towards India. In the light of this, trade and investment cooperation can be expected to increase.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.