Our external relations have had a strong influence on domestic events for a long time, but somehow we continue to live under the delusion that the public is not interested in foreign policy matters and that they would not affect the outcome of the elections.
A reading of the manifestos of three main contenders in general elections 2018 – Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – leaves one with the same impression. None of the three parties have come up with ambitious or innovative promises to reboot the foreign policy of the country faced with multiple daunting and complex challenges on the external front.
The very fact that all parties placed foreign policy at the end of the manifestos and most discussed it summarily, barring the PPP, which spelt out its agenda in a bit more detail, speaks for their commitment to retooling foreign policy for securing country’s interests in an uncertain world. One ought not to forget that the PML-N spent first four years of its last tenure without a foreign minister.
That would have been understandable in normal times. However, given the nature of the challenges and the realization that those challenges could determine the success or otherwise of the incoming government, the absence of focus is baffling. If one is not mistaken differences over foreign policy issues was one major contributor to civil-military rift during PML-N tenure.
The foreign policy component of the manifestos of these parties have too much in common with emphasis on strengthening ties with China and Russia; pursuing dialogue with India and seeking resolution of the Kashmir issue; greater engagement with Afghanistan; reinvigorating relations with US on basis on mutual respect and interest; striking a balance between Riyadh and Tehran; and reaffirmation of a commitment to the nuclear program. Importantly, something which is also very welcome, all parties have committed to a peaceful neighbourhood. The only differences that one can figure out are perhaps in the details.
Higher than the Himalayas
China is Pakistan’s strongest and most reliable ally, not only in the region but also in global politics. Islamabad’s reliance on Beijing has, over the past several years, increased because of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a multi-billion dollar trade and infrastructure project that the two countries are undertaking together and one that is an essential component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The other reason behind the growing closeness between the two countries is the US policies for the region and gradually increasing frostiness in Pakistan-US and US-China ties. China is, in the near future, not only important for Pakistan’s economy and development, but would also has an important role in regional security.
All political parties share this assessment and have pledged not only to strengthen ties and strategic cooperation with China, but have also unequivocally committed to implementation of the CPEC.
The PML-N, which claims credit for initiating the CPEC during its last tenure, says it would “fortify ties with China by ensuring success of the CPEC.” The PTI vows to focus on expanding “existing strategic partnership with China.” The PPP describes relations with China as the “indispensible connection” and commits to “enhancing strategic partnership and cooperation by shoring up engagement in the fields of defence, diplomacy, trade and technology, while protecting our national interest and sovereignty”.
There is consensus among Pakistani political parties that the way forward in ties with neighbouring India is peaceful resolution of all disputes, including Kashmir. Numerous efforts were made by the last PML-N government to resume bilateral dialogue with India that was unilaterally suspended by Delhi months before the 2013 elections, but no progress could be made. It is unclear how Modi would respond to any fresh overture from the new government in Islamabad. A breakthrough is unlikely because India, too, would soon be entering its own election cycle and all parties there try to cash in on the anti-Pakistan sentiment.
The PML-N pledges to “stabilise relations with India through a sustained dialogue” and would seek resolution of the Kashmir dispute on the basis of UN resolutions and extending moral, political and diplomatic support to Kashmiris in their fight against Indian occupation. The PTI, too, would work on a “blueprint for resolving the Kashmir issue.” The party also emphasises on conflict resolution and adopting a “security route to cooperation.” The PPP, on the other hand, calls for “sustained and uninterrupted dialogue on all outstanding disputes and issues without preconditions is the way forward.”
The new idea here is therefore the “security route to cooperation.” Militaries on both sides are already driving bilateral ties. The PTI needs to further elaborate on its proposal.
Conflict in Afghanistan is undisputedly one of the major reasons behind Pakistan’s foreign policy woes. Pakistan has time and again said that it views Afghanistan’s security as its own and promised to help promote Afghan-led, Afghan-owned political process to end the conflict. More recently, Pakistan contributed to the first ever ceasefire between the Taliban and the government on Eid-ul-Fitr – something also acknowledged by Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Pakistan Dr Omar Zakhilwal.
The PML-N’s position is more of a reflection of Foreign Office’s official position on the matter. It says it would “support an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned political process in Afghanistan as peace, security and stability are inextricably intertwined with peace, security and stability in Pakistan.” The PPP said it remains committed to a policy of “non-interference in Afghanistan by supporting only Afghan-led paths to stabilisation, reconciliation and peace, without favouring any group, faction or tribe.” It said it would encourage political, military, and intelligence cooperation with Kabul, people-to-people relations with Afghanistan, dignified repatriation of Afghan refugees, holistic role for Pakistan in socio-economic re-building and development of Afghanistan. The PTI is curiously silent on Afghanistan.
The Other Neighbour
The US is Pakistan’s ‘other neighbour’, though not strictly is geographic terms. Relations between the two countries have witnessed major fluctuations but have mostly remained tense particularly over the last decade. This happened because of lack of transparency in the conduct of bilateral ties and misplaced expectations the two had from each other. All three top political parties are convinced about the importance of relations with Washington, but at the same time emphasise on introducing the element of reciprocity and mutuality of interests. This is the right approach, but would require an elaborate strategy.
“Build relations with US on the basis of equality and mutuality of interests especially in promoting regional peace and security, economy, science, technology, and innovation and exchanges in the fields of education,” reads the PML-N manifesto. The PTI says the relationship with US would be determined by “reciprocity and mutuality of interest.”
The PPP, meanwhile, has somewhat more elaborate plan on US. Its includes employment of public diplomacy to reach out to Congress, American media, academia, civil society, business and entrepreneurial segments; having clearly defined terms of engagement based on “shared understanding of national sovereignty, mutuality of interests and respect,” and revival of the bilateral strategic dialogue.
Brothers from the Arab World
The policy on Middle East has always been a divisive issue in our national politics. At the same time, the region is of immense importance to Pakistan in view of the contributions it makes to our economy. All parties look to be cognisant of the factors that have been tearing apart Middle East and have pledged neutrality.
The PML-N, as usual talks about “strengthening relations with Ummah, particularly GCC countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, as well as Iran, Turkey and Central Asian Republics.” It mentions Saudi Arabia as a traditional ally. The PTI, meanwhile, re-emphasises neutrality and promises that if it gets a chance to form government, it will act as an “honest broker” and would adopt a “non-partisan role” in the region.
The PPP plan is a long rigmarole. It states, “We will strike a rational balance in our relations with Riyadh and Tehran to shore up our influence and enhance prospects for engagement with each. The PPP reaffirms that Pakistan’s alliance with Saudi Arabia remains strong and we will continue to strengthen our bilateral relationship through diplomatic, economic and security cooperation. We will also be steadfast in our diplomatic and strategic pursuit to capture new entry-points as a result of Tehran’s re-emergence as a key regional player, and one with growing stakes in multilateral initiatives.”
Both the PTI and the PPP have pledged to increase parliamentary oversight in the domain of foreign policy operations. The PML-N, which is now championing parliamentary supremacy, it should be recalled, had during its tenure remained staunchly opposed to parliamentary oversight.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad