Pakistan Foreign Policy Considerations of the Imran Khan Government

Spotlight By Sarral Sharma*

Pakistan Foreign Policy Considerations of the Imran Khan Government

Despite balancing diplomatic ties, other considerations for the Khan government include urgent financial assistance to improve the shambolic economic situation in Pakistan.

If judged by his inaugural address on 19 August 2018, Pakistan's newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan is likely to focus more on domestic issues to fulfil his election promises. This is despite the fact that the country faces international isolation and multi-pronged foreign policy challenges.

Whether it is repairing deteriorating relations with the United States (US), emboldening ties with China or managing tensions with India and Afghanistan, Khan’s ability to steer foreign policy will depend on his relations with the country's powerful military establishment which has historically set Islamabad's course on international and regional affairs. Therefore, we will not see any major differences between the Khan government's foreign policy priorities and that of the previous Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) dispensation.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government has taken power amid a complex geopolitical environment: the US is getting desperate to get out of Afghanistan; Iran's Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) quagmire; persistent instability in the Middle-east region; China's growing economic footprints across the region; placement of Pakistan on the Financial Action Task Force's (FATF) 'grey' list, among others.

Khan's government will find it difficult to deal with these complex foreign policy issues amid the looming economic crisis in the country.

Its first priority will be to improve the economic situation at home with the help of its traditional partners — China and Saudi Arabia — and international organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It is not surprising that Khan travelled to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in his first foreign visit as the new prime minister of Pakistan. Moreover, China has extended help with 'fresh' loansto somewhat unburden the new dispensation in Islamabad.

Despite these positives developments, Khan's administration will continue to face some traditional and new foreign policy concerns. In the first month of the new government at Islamabad, various high-rank officials from different countries such as the US, China, Iran visited Pakistan to meet the Khan's administration in order to reinvigorate their bilateral ties. This article will focus on the major outcome(s) of these visits and overall foreign policy considerations of the new government in Islamabad.

All-weather Friendship with China

Earlier this month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Pakistan to meet the new government in Islamabad. In his official statement, Khan referred the 'all-weather' friendship with China as a 'cornerstone' of Pakistan's foreign policy. He even pledged to complete the controversial $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as both leaders called for emboldening bilateral strategic partnership. Wang reportedly underscored the significance of China-Pakistan relationship which serves as a model of friendship in interstate relations in the South Asia region. The message was clear, both countries will continue to serve bilateral objectives despite domestic political changes in Pakistan or other geopolitical developments.

For China, a military-backed regime in Pakistan may prove beneficial to fulfil its strategic objectives in the region. The uninterrupted and unhindered work on CPEC projects is crucial for the success of China's long-term Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, there were few hiccups in the initial days of the Khan government. Khan's Advisor on commerce, textiles, industries and investments Abdul Razak Dawood, in an interview to a newspaper, suggested a possible review of the CPEC agreement under the new government in Pakistan. Whereas, Finance Minister Asad Umar promised to bring about transparency to the CPEC projects, details of which remain closely guarded.

Moreover, Khan in the past has criticised former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for corruption and lack of transparency in the CPEC projects. All these statements created unease and doubts in Beijing regarding the new government's intentions vis-a-vis Chinese investments in Pakistan. To clear these doubts, Wang Yi's visit took place and some clarifications were made by the PTI government on the above mentioned matter. In addition, Pakistan's Army Chief Javed Bajwa visited China to further handle the situation.

Despite these incidents, China will remain the Khan government's first foreign policy priority and a key ally in the region. In addition to their burgeoning bilateral relations, both countries will continue to support each other at multilateral forums. New offers could be in the offing to persuade countries in the region such as Afghanistan, Iran or Saudi Arabia to join CPEC. As the US-Pakistan relations deteriorate, China might see an opportunity to further expand its influence in Pakistan; whereas, for the Khan government, China's support will remain vital to balance growing India-US camaraderie in the region.

Balancing Relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia

Two significant diplomatic events took place in last one month in context to Khan government's foreign policy considerations: Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif visited Islamabad on 30 August and Khan paid a visit to Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Balancing relations with the two West Asian arch-rivals would be a diplomatic challenge for the new government in Pakistan.

The PTI government will make efforts to improve economic and security ties with Iran. With Pakistan drifting away from the US, Tehran's ties with Islamabad may see a new boost in the near future. Moreover, Iran is in dire need of new partners in the region and outside amid looming American sanctions threat. On the other hand, for Pakistan, countering India's growing footprints in the region — Chahbahar port agreement and diplomatic influence in Afghanistan, could be an important reason to improve relations with Iran. Furthermore, the 'China factor’ may play a vital role in enhancing Pakistan's ties with Iran as the three countries could consider developing an economic nexus in the coming months.

For the last few decades, Saudi Arabia and the US pressured Pakistan to limit its relations with Iran. Even now, despite Zarif's recent visit to Pakistan, Islamabad would prioritise its traditional ally Saudi Arabia over Tehran. No wonder, Khan went to Saudi Arabia after taking over the PM's office in Islamabad. Despite balancing diplomatic ties, other considerations for the Khan government include urgent financial assistance to improve the shambolic economic situation in Pakistan. Pakistan will not get that assistance from the sanctions-ridden Iran. More importantly, the re-imposed US sanctions may thwart any hopes of increased bilateral trade between Pakistan and Iran in the coming months.

Therefore, it remains in Pakistan's national interest to embolden relations with rich allies such as Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Nevertheless, Khan's government will reciprocate to Iran's diplomatic overtures while prioritising relations with Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Pakistan may not increase bilateral differences with the US despite its open support to Iran on the JCPOA issue. Islamabad understands that such a move may risk placing Pakistan on a further collision course with Washington, and even Saudi Arabia, of which there could be long-term economic and diplomatic repercussions.

Managing Ties with the US, Afghanistan, and India

US-Pakistan bilateral relations are at a new low and there is a possibility of further deterioration of ties under the new civilian leadership in Islamabad. In August, Washington warned against any IMF bailout for Islamabad, which it fears the latter might use to repay its debts to China. The US also suspended funds for training Pakistani officers under the US government’s International Military Education and Training Programme. On the contrary, Washington has intensified pressure on the new government in Pakistan to act against the Haqqani Network and the Taliban, as the security situation in Afghanistan gets worse. Differences over the situation in Afghanistan and Washington's burgeoning relations with New Delhi may continue to remain as Khan's foreign affairs department will have limited room to negotiate with the US.

Pakistan's ties with Afghanistan will continue to remain tense under the new government as there appears to be no end of violence, and the Afghan Taliban are unlikely to give up their campaign against the Kabul government and foreign forces in Afghanistan. However, the PTI government may take a few steps to approach Kabul in the coming months. Pakistan's new Foreign Affairs Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has already made a visit to Afghanistan in an attempt to reinvigorate bilateral relations with the neighbouring country. To what extent such efforts materialise into something substantial will depend on the outcome of the ongoing peace process with the Taliban.

The Trump administration has increased pressure on Pakistan to do more on the terrorism issue. Ultimately, the key to Pakistan's Afghanistan policy will remain in the hands of the powerful military establishment. Therefore, it will be interesting to see whether the security establishment allows the Khan government to make some changes in its traditional Afghan policy, which is to expand influence in Afghanistan with the help of proxy groups. With the growing partnership between India and the US on the Afghan issue, the military establishment might not allow enough manoeuvring space to the new government in Islamabad.

On relations with India, Khan's government has shown desire to restart the dialogue process. However, the recent cancellation of the foreign ministers talks scheduled to take place on the sidelines of the 2018 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session has once again revealed the persistent mistrust between India and Pakistan. Tensions at the Indo-Pak border have increased after the barbaric killing of a Border Security Force (BSF) soldier and continuing infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) from the Pakistan side. The Indian government, while interested in talking to the new government in Pakistan, is concerned about the upcoming state elections and the General Elections due in 2019. For now, it appears the 'status quo' will be maintained between the both countries as there are meagre chances of any bilateral engagement. However, if the intent of Pakistan's military establishment remains focused on reconciliation with India, some major developments may take place in the next couple of years.

Looking Ahead

While PM Khan did not really explain his government's new foreign policy in the inaugural address to the nation, foreign minister Qureshi’s news conference on 20 August provided a blueprint of the same. Besides passing on a message of peace to the governments of Afghanistan and India, Qureshi also tried to dispel the general impression that the security establishment is the real in-charge of Pakistan's foreign policy and that the core of the new policy will be 'Pakistan First'.

The new government may witness new challenges in formulating and executing foreign policy in a complex international and regional environment. So, despite positive signals from Khan and Qureshi's speeches, Islamabad will have a difficult time improving relations with Afghanistan, India, and the US. Khan has been critical of the US policy priorities in South Asia, especially in Afghanistan, in the past. But after taking charge of the Prime Minister's Office, can his government afford to have acrimonious relations with the US? It seems unlikely as his 'experienced' foreign minister would consider having tenable relations with all major powers — China, the US, Russia — despite outstanding bilateral issues. Moreover, there are lesser chances of any major change in Pakistan's foreign policy objectives under Khan's government.

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