Despite the high quality of its diplomats, Pakistan’s diplomacy has fallen on hard times. The country has long been in a state of crisis. And a troubled domestic front undermines foreign relations.
This is not the only reason why Pakistan is struggling abroad. Foreign policy challenges have become too complex, and we are responding with poor policy choices because of internal weakness, skewed national priorities, personalised governance, and a lack of direction and a sense of purpose. Our politicians’ fights are between themselves, for themselves, and not for the country.
Today’s geopolitical environment is defined by shifting alliances, uneasy power balances, and overlapping coalitions among big powers under the umbrella of an unsteady world order led by the US and China. As the Ukraine war, and the world response to it, has shown “the fundamental principles of peace and security” are changing, as is the concept of sovereignty witnessed in the tension over Taiwan.
Not only has the configuration of big power relationships changed, there’s also a recalibration of relations among major middle powers with ongoing “realignment and de-alignment”. The prospects of confrontation, conflict, competition and cooperation have all increased. Briefly, while there are challenges, there are also opportunities. As great powers compete for influence, countries will need choices, but not all of them will have them. It is thus the best of times for some, and the worst of times for others.
The competition for influence is, of course, the ongoing one between the US and China. China is trying to take away US allies, and Washington those of China. China’s mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran has strengthened its footprint in West Asia which has traditionally been seen as pro-West, while Japan has reconciled with South Korea and pulled it away from veering towards China. The Philippines, which was getting close to Beijing, has been weaned off that path by Washington, while the prime minister of Singapore, a US ally, has just visited China.
Countries are not switching but multiplying loyalties. But Pakistan’s foreign policy keeps beating to the rhythm of an extinct world. Our foreign relations have no doubt had great success stories. But there has been a visible decline from the successful diplomatic maneuvering of the past that had leveraged Pakistan’s geopolitical position and defence capability to the country’s advantage. Years of living dangerously has weakened Pakistan, which has come to depend on others. Its diplomacy has now been left to seek loans and bailouts. That is shrinking our diplomatic space.
Pakistan is not isolated but is certainly stranded. It is no “haqiqi azadi” (real freedom) when one is dependent but feigns dignity. Dignity is not the courage to abuse big powers but the ability to stand up to them. And that comes when one can stand on one’s own feet. That is “haqiqi azadi”.
We ourselves, and not foreign powers, are the principal architects of our failure. We just allowed foreign powers to be part of our body politic, and be accessories to our failure. For Pakistan to become normal again is difficult but not impossible. In foreign policy, there are opportunities not seen since Pakistan’s masterly opening to China in 1963.
Two dominant stories today – China’s outreach to Iran and Saudi Arabia, and America’s Indo-Pacific strategy – provide such opportunities by making Pakistan relevant to both Beijing and Washington. Gwadar gives China the potential to sidestep the US and its “allied” naval dominance across the Indo-Pacific. Besides, should Beijing’s ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran expand, Pakistan, which enjoys good relations with both these countries, could become a bridge between China and West Asia. Washington too needs to engage with Pakistan to ensure that the latter’s strategic partnership with China and conflicted ties with India do not undermine its Indo-Pacific strategy.
To develop relations with both China and the US, Pakistan’s diplomacy needs to be flexible. China is a strategic partner but cannot be a substitute for other relations. The ties with China may be indispensable, but with America they are necessary. Pakistan also needs to review its ties with India. The old model has become unsustainable, supported neither by our own diminished national strength nor by our friends lured by the economic and strategic opportunities that India offers. And it is no help to Kashmiris either.
These opportunities can’t be exploited without global engagement, internal strength and freedom from external dependence. That is the road to take. Big powers could then ill afford to lose Pakistan’s friendship, and adversaries could not run the risk of inviting its enmity.
This article first appeared in Dawn.