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Pakistan’s strategic change in foreign policy

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When the PTI government came to power in August 2018, Pakistan had to reach out to its Gulf friends to seek a financial bailout to bolster the depleted country’s foreign exchange reserves. Prime Minister Imran Khan had to visit Saudi Arabia twice. Intense diplomatic efforts paid off when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates announced a bailout. Prime Minister Imran went on national television and announced that Pakistan had avoided a major economic crisis thanks to its “friends”. But that was not the whole story. Asking for money even from your friends has never been a pleasant experience. And the Prime Minister’s Trade Advisor Abdul Razzak Dawood, who accompanied the Prime Minister on these visits, recently revealed how embarrassing it is for the country to ask for help. “I know the pain this government endured from the start when we had to go to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and reach out. Where is your national security, where is your influence when you have to ask to be saved? It’s quite embarrassing, ”Dawood said in an outspoken speech at the Islamabad Security Dialogue.

The context of his statement was to underscore the fact that countries that lacked economic security often ended up compromising their sovereignty. The rescue plan for these “friendly countries” certainly came at a cost. It is for these reasons that Pakistan could not support the Saudi pressure on the Kuala Lumpur summit. These and other reality checks seem to have forced the country’s policymakers to revise Pakistan’s foreign policy. It is often said that Pakistan’s foreign policy has remained security-oriented and that we have paid little attention to harnessing our economic potential. But it is impossible to realize our true economic potential without changing our policies. For a long time, there has been a debate in Pakistan as to whether we should engage in trade and economic relations without first settling the long-standing dispute over Kashmir. At least the PPP and PML-N, in their last stints in power, tried to improve trade and economic relations while simultaneously seeking Kashmir resolution. However, for lack of consensus, the two parties had to face resistance from the circles concerned.

But during the Islamabad Security Dialogue, keynote addresses by Prime Minister Imran and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa made it clear that there now appears to be greater awareness that without economic prowess the Pakistan will not achieve its foreign policy goals. It is because of this change of approach that the Prime Minister and the army chief seemed conciliatory towards India. The army chief’s statement was significant when he said it was “time to bury the past and move on”. The prime minister said India should take the first step in creating an environment conducive to the resumption of talks. What is significant is that Pakistan no longer seems to be calling for the overturning of Article 370 or at least linking it to the resumption of talks. The enabling environment means India must lift restrictions on occupied Kashmir and release political prisoners etc.

There is also a change of tone and tenor of Indian officials towards Pakistan. India has its own strategic reasons for changing its approach. During a year of confrontation on the border with China, New Delhi realized that the two-pronged situation was not tenable. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s shift in approach to economics is necessitated by harsh realities. We have to ask ourselves: are we making peace overtures today from a position of strength, compared to, say, similar passages in the peace process in 1998, 2004 and even at the start of the government’s first term? Modi?

Posted in The Express Tribune on March 22, 2021.

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