KL Summit Decision: Another View

KL Summit Decision: Another View
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to not attend the Kuala Lumpur summit hosted by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has been roundly criticised. The news came after Khan went to Saudi Arabia, a dash which generated poor optics. The consensus in the media is that Islamabad buckled under Riyadh’s pressure and failed to stand with Malaysia and Turkey, the two countries that have helped Pakistan on critical issues such as Financial Action Task Force (FATF) squeeze as well as Kashmir.

The criticism is legitimate. Even a sympathetic reading will have to concede basic mistakes, prominent being the question of why, given the divisive interstate relations in the Muslim bloc, as also Pakistan’s interests in the Gulf, did Pakistan go out on a limb without doing basic diplomatic work.

That said, there’s another perspective.

Firstly, let’s not take a snapshot view of this development. For too long Pakistan has looked west. While its Saudi-Gulf policy has had its dividends, it was a mistake to ignore important Muslim-majority states in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia and Indonesia. Interestingly, if we hark back to before the 1971 debacle, Pakistan’s diplomacy was heavily invested in the region.

Secondly, there is a serious effort underway to (a) avoid being part of one or the other camp within the Muslim bloc and (b) shift focus from realpolitik and geopolitics to geoeconomics.

Thirdly, there is a consensus among policymakers that the hard security-first policy has not always benefitted Pakistan. The state of the economy necessitates an approach that understands the interactive dynamic between geopolitics and geoeconomics. The decision to improve relations with Malaysia and Indonesia is pegged on that and is being seen as the gateway to ASEAN. This is part of economic diplomacy and, as should be clear, is a positive development that needs to be appreciated rather than criticised.

Fourthly, this shift is not easy because there’s no tabula rasa and the past informs the present. There are also two overlay problems: one is about multiple fault-lines within the Muslim bloc, the second is the emerging competition between the United States and China, which also defines and motivates certain camps within the Muslim bloc. Consider.

Riyadh is competing with Iran, but also with Turkey. Egypt is squarely in the Saudi camp, as is the UAE. Qatar has fallen foul of Saudi/UAE combine and is closer to Turkey and Iran; Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Hamas in Gaza are closer to Iran; Turkey has problems with the Iranian approach in Syria, which it considers its near-abroad. At the same time, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey have convergence of interests when it comes to the Kurdish question. To complicate the picture, mass protests in Iraq and Lebanon want to get rid of current rulers both for corruption as well as for their deep links with Iran. Iran itself is facing internal revolts.

Add to this the US interests in the Greater  Middle East. Washington has five major allies in the region: Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, UAE and Qatar. Israelis have been reaching out to UAE and also Oman. Iran is an outlier in this competition. Turkey, despite being a NATO member has its own problems with the US approach in Syria (immediate) and the Greater Middle East (broadly). Ankara swerves closer to Iran on some issues, as also to Moscow even as Ankara’s ties with Washington remain vital for it.

Try making a flowchart of this. Far from making things clear, which flowcharts are supposed to do, you will get an unintelligible jumble.

Then there’s China. The Thucydides Trap, a structural problem, defines what’s happening or is likely to happen. And this is not just a fleeting, Trumpian problem. This brings into the picture India, Pakistan’s arch-rival. The strategic partnership between the US and India — for all its hiccups — is primarily driven by the China factor.

These are, by all measures, treacherous waters. They are also the challenge Pakistan is facing at a time when Islamabad is trying to make a paradigm shift. The act requires balancing and neutrality. China is crucial for Pakistan, but the US is equally important. The interests diverge on India, but converge on Afghanistan. Turkey is important, as is Iran. Equally, there’s a long trajectory of relations with Riyadh and the UAE.

The big picture requires prioritising partners without being seen by other states with suspicion. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. When you want to change the status quo, there will be friction and difficult moments. The KL development is just one; there will be others.

The right question, therefore, is about the direction. Is the direction correct. The answer to that is yes. Pakistan won’t be part of any zero-sum game(s). For instance, we know that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are close to India. But we are not going to tell them it’s us or India.

Now to KL specifically.

Pakistan, after the Saudis raised concerns, was acting as a go-between. Riyadh had two issues with the KL summit: would the summit divide the ummah; is it an attempt to create an organisation parallel to the OIC.

Pakistan first approached Dr Mohamed. In fact, Pakistan suggested that he approach Riyadh directly too, which he did. But the visit couldn’t take place because of the GCC summit. It will, post-KL summit. It was then decided, with Dr Mohamad, that Pakistan, this time, would stay away from the summit so it could keep the channels open with Riyadh. He agreed, as did President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

There’s more detail but paucity of space doesn’t allow it. The basic point, however, is that Pakistan is the only state in the Muslim bloc at this moment that can talk to everyone. The past will interfere, as will certain other factors, but it will not throw Pakistan in one or the other camp. That’s a good start, not a negative.

Finally, to keep up this approach, it will be prudent — in fact, necessary — for the PM or at least the foreign minister to visit KL after the summit. That will be helpful in dispelling the current misgivings.

The writer is former News Editor of The Friday Times. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.