Last year in June, Foreign Minister of Pakistan Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari urged a “serious reassessment” of our foreign policy when speaking to the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Given the shifting geopolitics of our region, this was a siren call supported by much of our political intelligentsia. Since 2023 has started, it is important to reflect on whether our foreign policy has changed.
South Asia: The least integrated region
Eastern front of Pakistan: India
Let’s start with our neighbor to the east, who still views Pakistan contemptuously. There has been no communication between the two nations for more than six years. The intensity of the animosity between the foreign minister of India and Pakistan can be seen in a recent verbal altercation at United Nations.
The more important question that both nations must consider is whether the region can ever flourish if they keep their swords adrift.
The two nations look to be mired in a protracted period of estrangement after missing out on peace possibilities during the 1999 Lahore process, the 2007 four-point formula, and the 2015 resumption of engagement.
India was not interested in improving relations with Pakistan, as seen by the BJP-led government’s steadfast hostility from the start of its second term and the illegitimate annexation of Kashmir in 2019. Our region continues to be the least integrated, and its prosperity is hindered. Maybe both need to think outside the box to get past the impasse.
Western front: Afghanistan
The Taliban administration in Kabul continues to surprise Pakistan on the western front. They have failed to uphold women’s rights, build an inclusive administration, and implement counterterrorism measures, all expectations of the international community. What worries Pakistan the most is the space they have given the TTP and other anti-Pakistan groups.
The 40-year-old theory that a government in Afghanistan sympathetic to Pakistan would bring about enduring peace on our western frontier has failed. The Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan appears to have inspired its equivalents in Pakistan, the TTP, to attempt to annex as much of Pakistan as possible to create their emirate.
Sadly, a heated conflict rages on our western boundary, which calls for a forceful diplomatic and military reaction. By promoting the Taliban’s trade, economics, and legal system and advocating for them in the eyes of the West, we must not act as if we have any control over how they behave. Afghanistan is a sovereign nation; thus, all interactions with it must be conducted with regard to both parties’ interests.
Relations with Iran
Once a close friend, Iran continues to struggle with internal and external issues. Due to US sanctions, Pakistan’s commercial interactions with Iran have not provided many advantages. Fortunately, there are no long-standing bilateral disputes with Iran. Instead of leaving the door open for smugglers, we should have used the border crossings more effectively to expand barter trade.
China: The northern neighbor
Our northern neighbor China is the only nation that still professes a specific affinity with Pakistan. However, given our unsteady political climate and fragile economy, Chinese investors are apprehensive about whether they should invest in Pakistan unless they are guaranteed rewards and their citizens’ safety.
We should have sought to establish special economic zones to draw Chinese companies while CPEC investments poured into infrastructure and energy. Increasing corporate efficiency is also crucial from a strategic standpoint. Despite having great potential, Gwadar, the CPEC’s entry point, continues to be underutilized.
Renewal of Foreign Policy
At this time, our primary concern regarding foreign policy appears to be how to renew the lenders’ loans so that we may continue to exist. We talk about economic diplomacy, but our region’s level of commerce and economic activity is still pitifully low. Additionally, we should have discovered ways to benefit from the GCC’s current economic reorientation.
Our ties with the US, one of the major powers, have slightly improved and remain tense. We generate foreign cash through exports to the US and Europe but rapidly spend it on unaffordable, far more expensive imports. Even if we did not vote in favor of the UN resolution denouncing Russia’s aggression towards its smaller neighbor Ukraine, Russia has not done anything for Pakistan.
Is Pakistan prepared for a Foreign Policy revision?
Considering those mentioned above, one may question whether we are even prepared for the profound revision or reassessment we all long for. For this to happen, we must reflect on whether rhetoric has replaced a sober pursuit of the national interest.
Introspection and the tenacious pursuit of national economic interests in all our overseas connections are what our nation most needs. Before any policy reforms can be implemented, perhaps a more profound change in thinking is required. Because without reassessing or changing the way of our thinking, no policy shifts can be made, and we cannot move above these mere slogans and bluffs.