Pakistan seems to be making a holistic policy shift from geopolitics to geoconomics.
Pakistan seems to be undergoing a transformative policy shift as its policy makers wean it away from geostrategy towards geoeconomics. This is a sharp policy detour for Pakistan whose sole focus in the past was projecting itself as a geostrategic ally of the West during the Cold War and the global 'War against Terror'.
Earlier this month, senior Pakistani military and civilian leadership participated in the Islamabad Security Dialogue – a first of its kind conference that set the tone for this policy shift. The attendees included Prime Minister Imran Khan and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa.
Pakistan’s shift has pivoted around the country becoming a regional hub of economic connectivity in South Asia and is driven by the “sincere desire to re-cast Pakistan’s image as a peace-loving and useful member of the international community”.
The biggest takeaway from the conference was one of the four pillars of Pakistan’s geoeconomics shift: “noninterference of any kind” in the internal affairs of Pakistan’s neighboring and regional countries. This is significant not only for Pakistan, but for the region as well. A blemish on Pakistan remains its alleged support of terrorism in India-administered Kashmir – something that has sabotaged prospects of broader economic cooperation in the region.
What should the world make of Pakistan’s new dalliance with geoeconomics? Does the world have reason to be sanguine about Pakistan’s change of heart?
Traditionally, Pakistan has been viewed with suspicion in global power centres. India has repeatedly gunned for Pakistan’s head and urged the world to take Pakistan at face value. In June 2018, Pakistan was moved to the Financial Action Task Force's (FATF) grey listdue to its failure to curb terrorist financing and money laundering. Despite making substantial progress, Pakistan remains on the FATF grey list.
Pakistan has made some hard choices over the years such as sitting in a tight embrace with China, which obliged Pakistan by investing a mammoth $62 billion in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor – a flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Despite this, Pakistan has remained hamstrung by a weak economy which has been repeatedly bailed outby the IMF.
Pakistan’s relationship with its archnemesis, India, also hit a new low in August 2019 when India formally annexed India-administered Kashmir into its territory through a controversial constitutional amendment. Pakistan tried to “internationalise” Kashmir, but its plea fell on deaf ears.
Despite India’s dangerous drift towards authoritarianism under the BJP government, the world opted to side with India, a country of 1.3 billion people.
It is in this context that Pakistan seems to have realised that it is time to change tack.
Perhaps also realising that a thaw with India would open new doors for Pakistan, the army chief noted that “stable Indo-Pak relation is a key to unlock the potential of South and Central Asia by ensuring connectivity between East and West Asia”. He indicated Pakistan’s desire to “bury the past and move forward” towards resumption of dialogue with India.
Another important outcome is Pakistan visibly decoupling its relationship with China and positioning itself as a neutral country. This could be Pakistan’s attempt to avoid getting sucked into the broader US- China rivalry, something it can ill afford at this stage.
The Indian reaction to Pakistan’s gestures remains anchored in cautious optimism – atleast for now. Recently there has been a relative thaw between the two countries after last month the Director Generals Military Operations of both countries announced a ceasefire over the Line of Control which for years has been the epicentre of regular cross-border firing.
If India is the initial hurdle that Pakistan must cross, there are others that lie in waiting. Pakistan will need to continue working with various parties to the Afghan pece process to prevent Afghanistan from sliding into outright chaos. Of late, Pakistan has also signaled to the Biden Administration its desire to explore broader economic cooperation with the US. It remains to be seen if the US will reciprocate given that it is gravitating towards India with China in mind.
Pakistan’s new policy direction can be conveniently dismissed as political grandstanding or a message peppered with hyperbole. But if recent events are an indication, this time around there is visible intent on display – out of necessity, if not choice – which is also backed by action on the ground.
Since Imran Khan took office in 2018, this policy drift has been visible. Khan – backed by the country’s army – has taken a holistic view of Pakistan’s national security and hinged it on the broader constructs of economic security, human security, and climate change.
After assuming office, Khan extended a hand of friendship to India and expressed Pakistan’s desire to resolve all outstanding issues with India. Pakistan has also made concerted efforts to work with the US, Russia, and China in the intra-Afghan Dialogue. A country that has remained an outlier but could join in the Afghan peace talks if Pakistan’s olive branch is accepted, is India. In Western circles, this would give reason to be sanguine about Pakistan’s new direction.
Faced with cold hard facts, Pakistan seems to have realised that sclerotic methods — that didn’t do any good to the country in terms of eliciting meaningful cooperation from the world — must be discarded. It is too early in the day to know how far rhetoric translates into reality.
Pakistan’s best bet is to become a regional bridge of connectivity that is hinged on transnational economic pursuits. In the coming days, if Pakistan lives up to its promise, then the onus will be on the world to reciprocate and open a new page in its with relationship with Pakistan.
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