Imran Khan is building a narrative based on accusations of the US interference and conspiracy against the PTI government, and that Pakistan should have an independent foreign policy. The coalition government, the establishment and the US are resisting his narrative as false.
Let’s pause to question: What independence is he talking about?
Notwithstanding the critical significance of economic strength for an independent foreign policy, in general, independence implies multiple things, including positioning at equidistant relations with all states, non-alignment, having autonomy to decide which alliance or partnership to choose, diversification of external relationships and balancing among key and influential foreign powers.
So, what wrong has Pakistan been doing?
Pakistan has positioned itself at a distance from the US-Russia confrontation and the US-Sino relations. Regarding Russia, Pakistan abstained from voting in the UNGA resolutions on Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014 and 2022), demonstrating that Pakistan has autonomy in deciding what to vote for. Hence, Khan’s recent tagline of being conspired against due to his visit to Russia is incomprehensible.
On the other hand, the historical strategic ties with China are further strengthened with the development of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), perhaps, uninterrupted by recent attacks on Chinese nationals in Karachi.
To manage proxies against India, Pakistan has relied heavily on the Chinese vote in the UNSC for a long time. However, during Khan’s government, Pakistan’s diplomatic capital remained limited in compelling India to revert the August 2019 unilateral action on Kashmir, except for a little progress in back channel diplomacy in the form of ceasefire on the Line of Control.
Pakistan abstained from voting in the UNGA resolutions on Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014 and 2022), demonstrating that Pakistan has autonomy in deciding what to vote for. Hence, Khan’s recent tagline of being conspired against due to his visit to Russia is incomprehensible.
The US is even important in defusing India-Pakistan tensions. Contrarily, the Indo-Sino strategic rivalry to which New Delhi responds diplomatically and militarily, magnifies Pakistan’s security challenges, resulting in strengthening Pak-Sino strategic ties – an apple of discord for the US. In building its relations with three powers – the US, Russia and China — Pakistan has been walking on the road of strategic non-alignment between Russia and the US for long with China as its strategic partner.
Pakistan’s relationship with the US has remained a bumpy journey. For instance, Pakistan’s alliance with the US in Afghanistan did cost Pakistan in human and material terms. Here, one can argue the extent of independence Pakistan had in negotiating favourable rules of engagement of its alliances in Afghanistan. But one should heed to the fact that Islamabad did reap desired benefits from these alliances. Pakistan has become a key to peace and progress in Afghanistan, which is hard for the US to believe.
Further, maintaining balanced relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran has been a tall order. In the presence of economic and military ties with Saudi Arabia and US sanctions, Pakistan remained engaged with Iran to further regional stability and improve and diversify its economic outlook. Additionally, the voting pattern of Pakistan on UNGA resolutions on Iran remained in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia. From 2008 till 2021, Pakistan voted against on UNGA resolutions on human rights situation in Iran whereas Saudi Arabia’s stance has fluctuated — before voting in favour from 2015 onwards, and America always voting in favour.
Pakistan’s foreign relations have shown, with varying degree, different tenets of independent foreign policy — with an objective to get as many returns from each foreign equation. However, during Khan’s term, Pakistan did face diplomatic isolation.
Building on assumption that higher trade dependence results in greater voting agreements with the trading partner, the voting pattern shows dichotomy in Pakistan from 1946 to 2018 — vis-à-vis its major trading partners, notably China and the US. The data shows that Pakistan and China are closely aligned whereas the voting pattern in favour is not promising enough between Pakistan and the US. It can therefore not be concluded that both states are aligned or Pakistan’s foreign policy is titled towards or dependent on the US. Nevertheless, the abstain voting pattern of Islamabad and Washington on resolutions related to nuclear weapons (Pakistan voted 167 and America voted 166 times) and arms control (Pakistan voted 204 and America voted 278 times) are comparable. Is it because both countries’ interests are aligned or is it because Pakistan’s foreign policy is dependent on the US? This is a question for the proponents of “independent foreign policy” for Pakistan to answer.
A higher concentration of relations in one country could possibly make political elite in dependent country feel vulnerable, which may encourage it to seek diversification in foreign relations, which is evident in Pakistan’s case.
Given the strangling economic situation, seeking a bail-out from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the resultant IMF telling to cut down its expenditures and scale up its income is not a hit at the independence of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Likewise, if the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is bent on bringing in laws to counter terrorism and money laundering, then how is it questioning the independence of the country’s foreign policy?
Overall, Pakistan’s foreign relations have shown, with varying degree, different tenets of independent foreign policy — with an objective to get as many returns from each foreign equation. However, during Khan’s term, Pakistan did face diplomatic isolation. Bilawal Bhutto, Pakistan’s youngest foreign minister, must address this isolation by proactively engaging in international politics.