10.05.2024 Author: Vladimir Terehov

First steps of the new government of Pakistan in the foreign policy arena

Newly elected Pakistani PM,Shahbaz Sharif

It should be recalled that Pakistan held general elections on 8 February this year, the official results of which were announced a month later. As none of the country’s three main political forces won the necessary majority in parliament, two of them, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the Pakistan People’s Party, formed a very tentative coalition to create the institutions of power.

The leaders of these parties shared the posts of prime minister and president. The former was filled by Shehbaz Sharif after a six-month resignation, while Asif Ali Zardari, who had held the post from 2008 to 2013, became President.

By mid-March, a government had been formed and was immediately faced with the almost overwhelming problem of the country’s dire financial and economic situation. Contacts with the International Monetary Fund were resumed to address the most pressing issues, and negotiations were held with potential financial donors in the form of a number of Gulf states.

In other words, this purely domestic problem already contains a significant foreign policy component. It hardly needs explaining which of today’s leading geopolitical players is controlled by international financial organisations. And this factor is being taken into account by the new Pakistani leadership when it comes to positioning itself in the international arena.

Therefore, Sharif’s intention to “work with the United States to achieve common goals of global peace and stability and regional progress and prosperity” seems to go beyond the limits of obligatory protocol politeness. This was in response to congratulations on his election sent on behalf of US President Joseph Biden (other leaders of the world’s leading powers also sent such congratulations).

On 6 April, I. Dar, a candidate for the post of Foreign Minister of Pakistan (who was confirmed in this post a week later), who had previously headed the Ministry of Finance, had a telephone conversation with his American counterpart A. Blinken. This American-Pakistani contact was extremely positive. After the formation of the government, the new Finance Minister, M. Aurangzeb, visited the United States, where he held talks with a delegation from the US-Pakistan Business Council.

However, despite these and other positive signals recently sent by the US and Pakistan, the author does not share the common view that the struggle between “pro- and anti-American” clans in Pakistani politics is almost the main motive behind all the dramatic events that have unfolded in Pakistan since the spring of 2022 in connection with the early resignation of Imran Khan’s government. The clans are undoubtedly present, but firstly, they are all “pro-Pakistani” and secondly, the sharpness and uncompromising nature of the struggle between them (in the form of a “political vendetta”) is entirely due to the peculiarities of the internal situation in Pakistan.

Although, as the leading external players say, “it would be a sin not to use” these peculiarities to their own advantage in the struggle for influence over the second most populous (actually nuclear) country in the Islamic world. But the same I. Khan (now in prison), despite his loud public statements about the “American factor” in his resignation, could not produce any such evidence when he was asked to do so in court. This, by the way, is a lesson for important public politicians who find it useful to “watch what they say”.

Thus, the author’s view of the nature of Pakistan’s ‘new-old’ government is that in the foreign policy arena it is guided entirely by the interests of its own country. As it understands them. The main motive behind its “pro-American” passports has been outlined above. In this context, it is noteworthy that the new leadership of the Foreign Office has publicly protested the section on Pakistan in the latest US State Department report on “Human Rights Abuses in the World”.

Like the previous government (acting on behalf of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf led by I. Khan), the Sharif government is determined to develop “all-weather ironclad” relations with China (quite positive signals have also been sent to Russia). On 20 April, on the occasion of “Chinese Language Day” (one of the UN’s noteworthy dates), Sharif reaffirmed Pakistan’s continued participation in the key bilateral project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, one of the key elements of China’s global Belt and Road Initiative.

This is despite the fact that CPEC and BRI in general are the subject of constant propaganda attacks by the US. Coincidentally, the same CPEC is strongly opposed by separatist Baloch groups. Since it serves as a kind of main element linking all administrative units of the country into one political-economic whole. It also passes through the territory of the province of “Balochistan”, which is the largest in terms of area. However, Pashtun separatist movements operating in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province are not satisfied with this project.

But unlike the United States, it is not propaganda that prevails in the arsenal of attacks on CPEC by various separatists, but weapons, which have repeatedly been used against Chinese specialists working at various sites of this project. At the end of March, just as the new government was beginning its work, five Chinese engineers were killed in a terrorist attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The very next day, President A.A. Zardari visited the Chinese embassy, and a few days later, Prime Minister Sharif met with Chinese specialists based in the area of the incident. Both of Pakistan’s top leaders spoke all the words necessary on such a tragic occasion.

But, of course, it was not only this incident, which had an understandable resonance in China, that the new leadership of the country had to deal with immediately. The ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well as the problem of attracting foreign investment into the country’s economy were the main topics of Sharif’s first foreign trip.

During three days of the first decade of April, this topic was discussed with the leadership of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The main outcome of the talks was an agreement to speed up the resolution of technical issues in connection with the project of Saudi Arabia’s allocation of the “first tranche” of a long-discussed investment project totaling $5 billion to Pakistan.

Sharif’s visit to Saudi Arabia ended with the return of the entire Pakistani delegation home on a regular flight in order, as it was stated, to “reduce unnecessary expenditure of public funds”. In the author’s opinion, this is quite appropriate and positive PR move, taking into account the acuteness and complexity of the mentioned financial and economic problems of the country.

However, of all the activities undertaken by the new government in the international arena, the most resonant in the world information space was the official visit of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Pakistan from 22 to 24 April. The talks resulted in the signing of several documents on specific areas of bilateral cooperation, as well as the adoption of a brief Joint Statement of fairly general content.

As far as we can understand, one of the main “specifics” during the talks was the issue of the long-discussed Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. Among the various reasons that have so far prevented its implementation, we would like to mention two. The first is the highly insecure situation in the potential construction area, i.e. the territory inhabited by the Baloch people. The second is the Pakistani leadership’s compulsion to take into account the US sanctions policy against Iran. This second factor was also manifested during the visit of President E. Raisi.

Incidentally, the same factor is undoubtedly at work in the problems that still accompany the implementation of the (also long-standing) project to modernise the Iranian port of Chabahar, in which India was to play a major role. A fairly concrete agreement on this issue was reached in early 2018 during the visit of the then Iranian President H. Rouhani to India.

Islamabad’s policy towards its main adversary, New Delhi, must take into account the desire of both Iran and Saudi Arabia (as well as almost all the countries of the Arab world) to develop relations with India. In this regard, it is noteworthy that during the recent talks on the Kashmir issue (the main issue for Pakistan in its relations with India), both the Saudi and Iranian sides were restrained in their statements.

Relations with Afghanistan, another important neighbour of Pakistan, remain, to put it mildly, quite strained. And while in Tehran’s case one of the main sources of Islamabad’s problems is the Baloch issue, in Kabul’s case a more general Pashtun problem plays a similar role. One of its external manifestations was the above-mentioned terrorist attack in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

In general, Pakistan’s new leadership is immersed in what for the country is a “normal” field of foreign policy problems.


Vladimir TEREKHOV, expert on the problems of the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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