Reinjecting Realism: Towards a Pragmatic and Effective Pakistani Foreign Policy


Editor’s Note: This is the thirteenth installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a new series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competition — military, economic, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series.

In October, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Islamabad to a cold welcome by a mid-ranking Foreign Service bureaucrat. Gone were the days when the secretary of state was received on the red carpet by high-ranking officials and politicians, as was the case in 2010. Pakistan’s relationship with the United States, the only country it has ever formally allied with, is deteriorating, while its cooperation with China, a country it has been close to since the 1960s, is expanding under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The South Asian nation has entered uncharted geopolitical territory.

Some describe Pakistan’s relationship with the United States in marital terms. Pakistan is the faithful, devoted first wife while the United States is the playboy husband whose strategic affections shift from time to time, most recently to India. According to this narrative Pakistan often responds irrationally to these shifts, going so far as to accuse the United States of abandonment.

In fact, rather than behaving like a jilted lover, Pakistan has, in the past, shown deftness in managing its U.S.-ties and pragmatism in coping with geopolitical change. In the 1960s, Pakistan strategically improved relations with Communist China, much to the initial chagrin of the United States. Similarly, in 1979, when it formally joined the Non-Aligned Movement, Pakistan showed its willingness to explore options beyond the Western camp. Pakistan showed an ability to adapt to emerging geopolitics, sometimes at the expense of its ties with the United States. U.S.-Pakistani ties have never been as simple as it is often believed.

Despite the strategic way Pakistan has managed its relationship with the United States in the past, the future might see a different trajectory. Over the past five years, three dramatic shifts in Pakistan’s regional relationships — with China, India, and the United States — afford new opportunities. It is time that Pakistan move beyond a foreign policy that revolves around relations with these three countries, and instead diversify its interests and opportunities. For example, Pakistan can expand its relations with the Central Asian republics and become a trade and energy route for these countries, especially through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Similarly, Pakistan can enhance its role in the Middle East by tactfully participating in the Saudi-led Islamic military alliance, which its former Army chief heads, and by playing a constructive role in the Saudi-Iranian conflict. If Pakistan can deftly maneuver a pragmatic course through these shifting currents, it can position itself to compete effectively and advance its foreign policy interests beyond the narrow prism of India, China, and the United States. 

The Changing Strategic Landscape

In the past few years, the geopolitical reality of Southern Asia has changed dramatically, leading to three major reconfigurations: 1) the intensification of the China-Pakistan nexus, 2) the emergence of India as a global power, and 3) the decline of the United States as an influential player.

First, the “flagship” China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has brought the two countries’ relationship to a new level. Even though Pakistan and China have been close for decades, the relationship has been primarily one of military and diplomatic engagement. China has had little influence in Pakistan’s internal matters, very few Pakistanis have made China their home, and the non-trade traffic between the two countries is also very limited. China’s actual footprint in Pakistan to date has been quite light.

All of this is poised to change with China’s burgeoning investments in its South Asian neighbor. While the details are still shrouded in secrecy, it is believed that several thousand Chinese personnel will come to Pakistan to implement projects to these investments. It is already estimated that upwards of 30,000 Chinese nationals reside in Pakistan, while over 71,000 visas were issued to Chinese individuals in 2016 alone. How China will engage with the various stakeholders in Pakistani politics remains to be seen, but a larger footprint will certainly engender greater Chinese interest and more interference in domestic affairs. Already, China has voiced concerns about terrorism in Pakistan, most recently through the BRCIS declaration, which for the first time named Pakistan-based groups as concerns. As Chinese presence and investment increases in Pakistan, concern about the security and safety of those interests will naturally also increase.

But several critical questions remain: Will the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan try to fit into the role of the U.S. ambassador in terms of local influence? How will the Pakistani military react to direct Chinese contacts with actors in Pakistan? And to what extent will China’s presence lead it to dictate certain policy decisions in Islamabad?

Second, after decades of Pakistan being India’s primary strategic concern, India is finally emerging as a world power. For years, the tensions between India and Pakistan equated the two countries to a certain extent, much to the chagrin of New Delhi, and showed India’s inability to move beyond a regional posture, let alone become a world power. However, India has been changing its foreign policy. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has considerably expanded its relationship with the United States, which has further strengthened under President Donald Trump. India is fast becoming a counterweight to China, and has also rebranded its old “Look East” policy as a more proactive “Act East” policy that envisions deeper partnerships with Japan and Southeast Asian countries. Most significantly, India has decided on an “Ignore Pakistan” or “de-hyphenation” policy. India now only refers to Pakistan in the context of world terrorism and shows no signs of being amenable to talks with its neighbor. India recently recalled its high commissioner to Pakistan mid-term and sent him to Beijing, prompting one high-ranking Indian diplomat to quip wryly that India didn’t want to “waste talent in Pakistan.”

Pakistan should view this Indian disengagement in two ways. On the one hand, it should use this opportunity to also de-hyphenate its worldview and avoid seeing it exclusively through the prism of India. On the other, Pakistan should emphasize that it is always open to talks and cooperation with India, and make clear that it is India that always spurns such overtures. Such an approach will open new opportunities and build a positive and cooperative foreign policy outlook for Pakistan.

Third, the lack of a comprehensive U.S. policy towards Southern Asia, which deals with each state both separately and collectively, may soon prevent it from exerting any meaningful influence in Pakistan. Recent U.S. engagement with Pakistan has focused on two related fronts: Afghanistan and terrorism. In terms of Afghanistan, the United States wants Pakistan to help end cross-border terrorism, rein in the Haqqani Network, and avoid destabilizing the government in Kabul. Similarly, Washington demands full Pakistani cooperation against terrorism within and outside the region.

However, this means that the United States lacks a specific “Pakistan” policy that provides tangible benefits to Islamabad. Such a policy has perhaps never actually been developed – hence the persistent historical ups and downs in the relationship. The development projects that the United States has initiated, especially under the so-called Kerry-Lugar bill, have been primarily driven by concerns related to Afghanistan and terrorism. As a result, these projects left no lasting impact on Pakistan, as most either did not last long enough or were not followed up with the necessary measures. As U.S. projects in Pakistan wind down, the little leverage the United States had in the country is on the wane. To make matters worse, by suggesting India assume a larger role in Afghanistan, Trump has confirmed Pakistan’s worst suspicions about U.S. policy towards the region.

Moreover, the promise of Chinese loans has meant Pakistan has stopped caring about the United States to the extent it used to. One senior government official noted privately that the American ambassador is no longer invited to high-profile events, exhibiting the widening gap between the two countries just as the snub of Tillerson did. Significantly, the Pakistani establishment also seems to have moved on from endlessly complaining about the United States to engaging with its near-peer competitors. In addition to the Chinese, Pakistan has made attempts to improve its relations with Russia. The recent joint military exercises between the two countries are signs of a developing relationship. That Russo-Pakistan relations are improving despite Moscow’s closeness to New Delhi is further evidence that Pakistan is embarking on a more pragmatic course in foreign policy and that diversification of partners is reaping dividends.

Coping with Uncertainty

How should Pakistan navigate these uncharted geopolitical waters?

First, Pakistan needs to dispassionately manage its relationship with China. The relationship might be “higher than the Himalayas” and “sweeter than honey,” but it is now entering a new phase. Pakistan must avoid assessing everything through the lens of Chinese investments, as some have been wont to do. Several government officials and policymakers have termed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor a “game changer” without even knowing its details. While the investment of over $62 billion is significant, the modalities and effects are still not clear. Since most of the Chinese investment is a loan, the terms of the mark-up are not clear, nor is it obvious that Pakistan would be able to afford such high interest payments. Furthermore, mere construction of infrastructure does not automatically mean progress. The Lahore-Islamabad motorway, completed 20 years ago, passes through a region that is home to nearly 60 million people. Yet traffic on the road has not dramatically increased, nor has economic development either along the motorway or in areas adjoining it. What happens after infrastructure projects are completed is far more critical than their construction.

Second, the Pakistani strategic establishment should abandon its obsession with India, which, despite posing some real challenges, does not warrant the attention it receives. Being “not India” is how Pakistan sees itself. Under this logic, anyone who is a “friend” of India is an “enemy” of Pakistan. This zero-sum view of world politics has often left Pakistan with few options, and is poised to lead to further complications. For example, the deepening relationship between India and Iran is already viewed suspiciously in Pakistan. With regards to Afghanistan, the sensitivity is such that newly elected Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi, during his recent visit to the United States, suggested India should have no role in Afghanistan at all. Pakistan’s India-centric approach prevents it from seeing the region as a series of different players who act on multiple levels.

If Pakistan is to achieve its national self-interest, it must drop its historical baggage and not see everything through an India-specific lens. For example, Pakistan can further develop its relations with Iran independent of India’s involvement in the country. Similarly, as mentioned earlier, Pakistan’s relations with Russia should not be seen through the prism of the Russo-Indian friendship and should instead be developed separately. Development of relations based on rational self-interests, rather than historical and entrenched rivalries, is critical for Pakistan in the modern world.

Third, Pakistan will have to rebalance its relationship with the United States to a point where both sides recognize one another’s interests and work together to promote them, and agree to go their separate ways where they do not align. This will enable both sides to engage with each other in a more normal state-to-state relationship. Privately, senior civil and military officials in Pakistan agree that they do not want a dramatic break between Washington and Islamabad, yet have done little publicly to counter the deeply entrenched anti-Americanism in the country. The attempt to “mainstream” terrorist and extremist groups through political parties will only strengthen anti-Americanism in Pakistan, and fuel the narrative of global jihad.

In terms of Afghanistan, too, there is no way to resolve the country’s internal issues without bringing the United States on board. More specifically, Pakistan’s internal terrorism problem will not end as long as safe havens for terrorists who are anti-Pakistan remain in Afghanistan and vice versa. Therefore, it is in Pakistan’s self-interest to work jointly with both Afghanistan and the United States to root out terrorism, which affects both countries. Furthermore, Pakistan has long been hoping to become a hub of transit trade to and through Afghanistan. Only by working with both Kabul and Washington can this dream come true. The United States will not disappear from Afghanistan, so Pakistan must really engage with the United States on its Afghan policy, as well as with Kabul itself.

Finally, if Pakistan is to gain from the changing geopolitical situation in the region, it must develop a multi-pronged approach. Improved relations with Russia have been a step in the right direction, but further steps need to be taken to maximize Pakistan’s interests. Just as India manages to have good relations with archenemies Iran and Israel, and Saudi Arabia is close to both India and Pakistan, Pakistan needs to develop strategic partnerships in the region and beyond independent of its rivalry with India. Similarly, Pakistan’s role in the Islamic world, where once it was a significant player, can only be revived if it escapes its own foreign policy quagmire. With the upcoming general election in 2018 (the third consecutive election without interruption), a dramatic decrease in terrorism, and a burgeoning middle class, Pakistan now has opportunities it cannot afford to miss.


Yaqoob Khan Bangash is a historian of modern South Asia. He serves as the Director of the Centre for Governance and Policy at Information Technology University, Lahore.

Image: bm1632/Flickr