Pakistan’s own strategic path
This story first appeared in Arab News PK
During his recent trip to Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke with clarity about how Pakistan perceives and wishes to pursue its relations with neighboring states and beyond. We want settlement of all issues through negotiation since war is no solution to any dispute, we would like to have increased trade relations with our neighbors, we would like to work together, trade together so that we can reduce poverty within South Asia, and we seek to work for greater connectivity with our South Asian neighbors.
This approach, while being preferred by Pakistan’s successive elected governments, now appears to be a consensus approach of the elected leadership and of the army high command. Hence, what in the past was a divisive approach, now appears to be a unifying approach. This Pakistan doctrine seeking security through dialogue, trade, commerce and battle-readiness, is now taking center stage.
Pakistan has opted for a paradigm shift in defining and in pursuing its security interests. This shift is neither recent nor has it emerged from a specific decision. Instead, multiple developments, ranging from national, regional and global developments and changing nature of Pakistan’s relations with other countries, initiated this process of gradual reorientation.
If Pakistan sought for several decades to find its relevance for the US and simultaneously of bolstering its own security, this trend altered in the last decade. In recent months especially, this trend has become more evident as Pakistan seeks to move to the west of its borders seeking trade and commerce relations with its neighbors.
On its eastern border, the perennial problem of tensions with India persists. Backchannel moves with India have been initiated yet it remains uncertain how far this back channel will convert into an active engagement between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. Nevertheless, every sign indicating a forward movement between the two countries is received with great expectations. Afterall, over the last 70 years their relations have been marked more by intransigence and less by meaningful bilateral interaction.
Interestingly, Pakistan’s engagement with India in the past has been dominated by wanting resolutions of outstanding problems both for its own sake and also in response to pressure from major world capitals. Major capitals have been keen to see reduction in Pakistan-India tensions as a requisite for their own enhanced commercial and security engagement with the South Asian region.
This has now changed as Pakistan seeks to look more westward rather than get bogged with its eastern neighbor. The reasons for this shift in approach are multiple, five are however noteworthy.
One, the Gwadar port has given a major fillip to Pakistan as a center for geo-economic activities, principally trade and commerce connecting South, Central and West Asia along with the rising global power China. The beginning of trade activity through Gwadar has changed the security outlook in Pakistan. It now seeks security of its own people and territory by improving trade relations commercial activity and ensuring that its neighbors and other key countries by virtue of their economic interests with Islamabad, seek to have a stake in Pakistan’s security.
Two, Pakistan is looking at Afghanistan as not only a trading partner but a critical partner in its bigger trading undertakings involving Central Asia and beyond. Pakistan has undertaken major infrastructural projects including construction of roads, terminals, border clearances, port facilities, rapid container movements, setting up border markets, etc. to ensure that Pakistani and Afghan governments and traders all have a major stake in increasing bilateral and regional trade ties.
Three, Pakistan is no longer primarily India-focused in its diplomatic and commercial relations. Pakistan, post-China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), while wanting to improve relations through dialogue with India, is opening new vistas for its own greater geo-economic role by engaging in multilateral oil and gas projects, setting up trade corridors etc. Pakistan enjoys the advantage of being an inheritor of the old Silk Road. India, by contrast has boxed itself within South Asia and with its intransigent attitude has cut off land routes with Central Asia, West Asia and China.
Four, the changed dynamic of Pakistan-US relations. The two countries are on their own different trajectory in foreign policy and development. In engaging with the Biden administration, Pakistan will seek to engage in areas ranging from trade, commerce, working on global issues such as climate change and water shortage to global trade practices, and resolving international conflicts, including in Afghanistan. Islamabad no longer seeks to fit itself in US strategic designs.
Five, the China factor. Pakistan’s decades old strategic ties with China have moved ahead in all critical areas ranging from trade and commerce, infrastructure, security, post-pandemic strategic health, agriculture etc.
Pakistan is well on the way of charting its own strategic path factoring in geo-economics as a significant dimension in its security paradigm. The challenge remains to accelerate supporting undertakings on the home front. In CPEC, Pakistan is attempting to do just that.