Will Imran Khan craft a new foreign policy for Pakistan?

Syeda Mamoona Rubab outlines some of the foreign policy challenges facing the new government

Will Imran Khan craft a new foreign policy for Pakistan?
A Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) led coalition government would require great ingenuity when it assumes office in coming days amidst a challenging external environment characterised by global and regional realignments and emergence of new alliances. This task would become further onerous because of the foreign policy baggage that the new government is going to inherit.

PTI Chairman Imran, who in all probability will be the next prime minister, has received felicitations from some of the key capitals of the world. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani have all called to greet Khan. Similarly US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Chinese and Iranian foreign ministries have also welcomed the PTI victory in the elections and have said that they look forward to working with the new government. This list will grow when Khan formally assumes office.

The greeting messages from foreign dignitaries are a diplomatic ritual in which they symbolically offer both the olive branch of cooperation and the none-too-subtle reminder of issues that need to be addressed. However, history tells us that the new leader does not return to the earth until his government encounters the first foreign policy crisis.

Imran Khan probably would have to hit the ground running. He will not get much time to bask in the glory of his electoral victory, particularly on the external front where his government would face some very pressing issues from Day 1. Imran Khan’s victory speech, a day after the elections, suggests that he has a foreign policy plan in hand, but the first exhibit of the seriousness with which the party intends to implement that plan would come with his choice of foreign minister.

Looking at the challenges, one sees that the international environment is being defined by the growing rivalry between US and China and Russia as well. Pakistan was reminded of this when US Secretary Mike Pompeo in an interview with CNBC this week said that US would not allow an International Monetary Fund bailout package of US$12 billion for Pakistan’s struggling economy that could be used to pay Chinese firms working on CPEC projects. The Chinese soon afterwards hit back saying: “IMF has its own standards and rules when cooperating with relevant countries. We believe that they will handle it in an appropriate manner.”

Whatever worth this exchange is, it has definitely conveyed to the incoming government that China factor would determine future Pak-US ties and Washington would want a clearer policy on China. It goes without saying that Pak-China ties are historic and have remained unaffected by political changes in the two countries. There is a consensus within Pakistan on ties with China and the continuity of CPEC, something which has been reaffirmed in the PTI’s manifesto. But, China definitely has reason or two to worry about because it is also a reality that Pakistan has in the past remained susceptible to US pressures. Therefore, Beijing would be keeping a close eye on the developments even though it should feel reassured by Khan’s announcement that he would continue the bond with China, carry on with CPEC, and look towards Beijing as a model for alleviating poverty.

People of the country, meanwhile, would at least expect from Khan that the PTI government would be more transparent about CPEC dealings. There are already enough worries in the country that we too may end up like Sri Lankans or the Tajiks, who had to make major concessions to China after failing to repay their loans.

The second set of challenge comes from the growing Indo-US nexus in the region. This has emboldened India to be more aggressive towards Pakistan and has also contributed to increase in Indian influence in Afghanistan. India Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Khan to greet him and offered a new beginning. In his victory speech and while talking to Modi, Khan also emphasised his desire to improve relations. But, all that is easier said than done. There are fundamental issues that are preventing Pak-India distrust gulf from being bridged. At the top of that is the Kashmir dispute, where the freedom struggle is growing and an issue on which neither Pakistan nor India can make compromises. India, moreover, is unlikely to review its regional hegemonic designs especially when it sees them accomplishable under US patronage. Elections in India are just round the corner and unlike Pakistan, where India ties are not an election issue, Pakistan-bashing is an essential part of rhetoric in India. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Modi would, at the end of his tenure, appear accommodating and flexible towards Pakistan.

Afghanistan is another major foreign policy issue requiring attention. Positive developments have happened over the past few months on the Pak-Afghanistan ties, where they have forged a new relationship framework that provides for military and intelligence cooperation. After calling Khan, President Ghani said both of them had agreed to “overcome the past and to lay a new foundation for a prosperous political, social and economic future of both countries.” It sounds fabulous. Moreover, Khan’s pledge to keep open borders with Afghanistan has gone very well with the Afghans. But, the sustainability of this bonhomie depends on how much the new government would be able to contribute to the start of peace process, besides addressing Kabul’s security concerns. That’s the problematic and trickier part of the equation. And hopefully, the new government would not forget that it’s not just about Afghanistan, rather US perceptions about Pakistan are more importantly framed by the war situation in Afghanistan.

Then comes the Muslim world. Saudi ambassador was the first one to rush to Bani Gala after the results of the new elections became clear, indicating Riyadh’s desire to engage the incoming government. He is said to have visited Khan along with the goodies that the Kingdom can offer – a loan, help in getting a credit line from Islamic Development Bank and an assistance package. Similarly, Iranians sent also sent a letter of greetings with offer of cooperative ties. Imran Khan’s manifesto and victory speech was very balanced on the policy towards the Muslim countries. He said he would seek better ties with Iran and work for easing “tensions in the Middle East. We want to be the country that ends wars.” The PTI manifesto speaks about disallowing secondment of troops to another country, which would be deeply worrying for the Saudis.

The real question that remains is that would the new government tame the elephant in the room – the military’s control of the foreign policy. The PTI would think twice about challenging military dominance in foreign policy arena, especially after the elections that were alleged to have been deeply influenced by the military and the fate of the previous government that sought to tackle troublesome issues. Unless that is done, it would be more the same.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad

Email: mamoonarubab@gmail.com

Twitter: @bokhari_mr