The rising trend of regionalism in Pakistan’s Foreign Policy

The rising trend of regionalism in Pakistan's Foreign Policy

“Being defiant can be a good thing sometimes. Defiance is like marijuana – it is not a bad thing when it is used right.” _Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus

Since independence, the major objectives of Pakistan’s foreign policy have remained fluctuating. Although there are some constants such as efforts to keep close cooperation with the US, deep security assurances for Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, and highlighting Kashmir dispute at all international forums, many approaches have been replaced over the years during this evolutionary process, depending upon the ground realities and regional or international strategic environment. Excessive reliance on the US has been replaced with that on China, aggression against India has been replaced with pragmatic approach of appeals for dialogue, and perhaps most importantly, struggles of creating balanced foreign policy between Riyadh and Tehran have taken unprecedented pace.

Foreign policy of a country is aimed at safeguarding its national interests. In that, ensuring and strengthening country’s security and stability is considered the prime interest. Pakistan’s foreign policy goals have traditionally been defined by this prime interest. Currently, however, the country’s foreign policy is revolving around six major interests including softening its international image, enhancing exports and access to major markets, internationalizing Kashmir dispute, improving regional connectivity which is pegged with regional security and stability, and developing cordial relations with major powers (particularly the United States).

With the seeds of the Kashmir conflict with India sown right at the time of partition and consequent inheritance of various problems (weak institutions, water disputes, economic compulsions, etc.) to the newborn state not only determined the contours of Pakistan’s foreign policy in the early years but also set the highlighters that were to greatly squeeze and influence Pakistan’s foreign policy goals in the following decades. With the threats from India, Afghanistan’s previous hostilities, invasions and presence of external major powers in the region and adding to that – the horrors the “war on terror” brought to Pakistan; it is not difficult to see that the state’s foreign policy remained reactionary in most cases, and dormant in others.

Whatever the compulsions for Pakistan have been in the previous decades, the current regional and global structures are different and very opportunistic for Pakistan. Khursheed Mahmud Kasuri, former Foreign Minister of Pakistan, highlighting foreign policy issues to the country; writes, “The emerging new international economic environment influenced in several different ways by the process of globalization that has placed new responsibilities on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” He also highlights the politico-economic relationship becoming preeminent in the twenty-first century: “[T]he term political economy now applies both to the internal and external dimensions of politics and economics.”

Another major trend that paints the continuously changing global environment is “Regionalism”. States revise their foreign polices according to their domestic needs and external crescendos and diminuendos. Pakistan now, more than ever, needs to set fiercely proactive goals and not just be on the receiving end of matters but broaden its foreign policy goals.

With the economically “Rising China” and “Resurging Russia”, the dynamics of the international political and economic environment and, most importantly, the regional dynamics of Asia are changing. By kicking off the first trade activities under CPEC, Pakistan has set itself on a road to economic development and also to positive image-building. The smooth completion and execution of this project is not only crucial for Pakistan’s dwindling economy but also serves to be a foreign policy move without the parasitic aspects: Pakistan cannot utilize the immediate benefits of CPEC in its entirety, if it does not attract other regional and neighbouring states.

With Iran showing interest in joining CPEC, Pakistan has a massive opportunity to not only expand the littoral potential of Gwadar but also to gain a long-term ally. The potential of the Arabian Sea as the next major trade route increases exponentially with the Gwadar and Chabahar combined. Pakistan’s relational history with Iran has been on and off but Iran is a proactive state when it comes to national interest, with a vast pool of natural resources and a comparatively much better governance level. In International relations, there is nothing better than a sensible neighbour and even more important is getting her on-board. Furthermore, after lifting of sanctions from Iran and diminishing US presence in the region, Pakistan needs to step up work on the Iran-Pakistan pipeline.

As Russia, China and Pakistan launched efforts to remove Afghan individuals from the UN sanctions lists late in December 2016 as part of efforts to foster peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, the political dynamics in the region also appear promising. Pakistan must capitalize on what the environment and circumstances are offering to gain another ally in the region and to facilitate the spill-over of these political collaborations into economic ones with Russia as well. Remember, when life throws you lemons, make lemonade. A glance at the past mistakes should caution Pakistani policymakers to not be completely dependent on any one major power.

Sensing the aromas of ‘regionalization’, it is important for Pakistan to engage on multilateral levels proactively and diplomatically if it is to materialize current opportunities and nuances into substantial and long-term development and success in the coming years. It, then, also becomes important that the nitty-gritties of CPEC be negotiated and executed in a manner which keeps Pakistan fiercely independent in its decisions.

The major foreign policy challenge for Pakistan lies in its next-door neighbour i.e. India. The Pakistan-India rivalry is far from over and perpetual hostilities keep making it worse but both countries have major potential trade partners in each other. India has made tremendous economic progress and is likely to rise further. Without compromising on country’s security and stability, Pakistan’s foreign policy pundits and military establishment need to formulate the modus operandi for exploiting maximum out of a rising neighbour toward the country’s national interest. On the other hand, Modi’s government must also realize that its chauvinist and hawkish policy approach towards Pakistan is a major stumbling block in regional peace.

With China stepping up in the OBOR mega project and Russia’s political involvement in the Middle East and now in South Asia, another challenge for Pakistan is in an irritated USA. A clear shift from US-centric to China-centric policy should not be allowed to damage Pakistan’s interests in any manner. There is, hence, a need to continuously keep ourselves engaged with US to accrue maximum from both super powers like a true non-aligned sate.

The bi-, tri- or quadrilateral collaborations in the region are evolving signs of regionalization in current geo-politico-economic scenarios. These trends may help Pakistan to strengthen its role in the regional organizations like SAARC and ECO. Policies toward the players, immediately external to South and West Asian region, like Turkey and Central Asia are very crucial in this rising trend. Where Pakistan’s littoral potential is an attraction for Central Asian states, bilateral relations as well as relations with Turkey on regional forums like ECO and OIC are important. Efforts at ECO will help Pakistan strengthen its ties with Iran and Turkey and will help it ride the wave of regionalism.

Manipulating the ‘soft power’ resources, another unique aspect to be utilized in the country’s foreign policy formulation is the emphasis on extremely careful selection and training of Pakistan’s human resource as expatriates in other countries. Pakistani population’s predominant portion being young is an excellent human resource tool to act as ambassadors abroad. Ways and methodology needs to be considered to exploit this unique aspect on not only economic and business sectors, but also on cultural, social and academic fronts. Utilizing this youth potential at regional foras can also bear many fruits for Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia is also in a state of shock after consistently-changing stance of the US towards them – it is perhaps due to this reason that King Slaman has paid an official visit to Russia.

Southern Asia is all set to witness the unfolding of several new geopolitical gambits. However, at a time when the US appears to have found a new strategic balance in the region and China is pushing its way through the great American wall in South Asia; Pakistan is focused on several strategic moves. The flurry of American activities, including the recently concluded visit by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, indicates Washington’s last-ditch attempt to regain control, and pre-eminence, over a region which is being pulled in conflicting directions, much to the discomfort of the US administration.

Amidst a continuously changing and developing political and economic environment, Pakistan’s foreign policy is met with great challenges, and opportunities as well. This era is indeed a test of skill and expertise for Pakistan’s foreign policy makers and it demands all the sincerest energies and resources to be employed efficiently and effectively, if Pakistan is to extract maximum benefits from these ripening prospects. Pakistan’s foreign policy planners must ensure that Pakistan plays an active but cautious role in diffusing the proxy hot and cold wars being fought on sectarian divides between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Pakistan needs energetic faces, institutionalized framework to craft the policy with keeping regional realities in mind.

What is Regionalism?

In international relations and diplomacy, regionalism refers to transnational cooperation to meet a common goal or to resolve a shared problem. It is the theory or practice of coordinating social, economic or political activities within a geographical region comprising a number of states. During the past few decades, there has been a tremendous surge in regionalism throughout the international system. This growth has been stimulated in large measure by the proliferation of regional institutions, giving rise to substantial scholarly interest in both their sources and consequences

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