There are numerous foreign policy challenges for the new federal government of Pakistan and it would need great sagacity, tact and determination to negotiate these challenges. Otherwise, problems would aggravate for Pakistan on the foreign policy front. It is also important to note that there are certain immediate and other long-term challenges for the new government.
As far as the immediate foreign policy challenges for the new government are concerned the foremost is Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and the image management of the new government and with it that of the country. Coming to the image of the new government, it is the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), whose chairman, Imran Khan is the prime minister. Imran Khan has been an international celebrity due to his cricket background, and he led the Pakistan cricket team to win its maiden World Cup victory in 1992 and remained himself a top world all-rounder in cricket. However, politics, and international politics in particular, is a different ball game. Imran Khan has enjoyed a reputation as a sportsman and social worker in foreign countries, particularly the United Kingdom, India and Australia which would contribute to his positive image. However, it is important to recall that the image of Khan was quite muddied when at the height of Pakistan’s Taliban terrorism (2007-2015) and the country’s security forces apparent failure to control the insurgents, he suggested to hold talks with the Taliban. He gave the advice at a time when there was a general consensus among all the political parties that stringent action must be taken against the Pakistani Taliban. Due to which the political opponents of Khan label him as “Taliban Khan.” The political opponents of Khan have been trying to exploit this title to make the Western countries apprehensive of him.
It may also be recalled that Khan, at one point, had staged days-long sit-ins and agitation against the United States Central Intelligence Agency-operated unmanned missile attacks, knows as drone attacks, inside Pakistani territory. The drone attacks were quite effective in targeting Al Qaeda and the TTP and their local and international affiliated terrorist groups and individuals. Almost all of these hundreds of drone attacks have been made on Pakistani territory especially in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the people have been living in a constant state of extreme fear at being targeted for no fault of theirs. Khan raised the issue and also the violation of Pakistani sovereignty by the drone attacks. Obviously, this did not send an acceptable message to the US, regarding Khan and his party, the PTI. It is also important to note that Khan, in his political discourse, has been calling for extricating Pakistan from the tentacles of international financial institutions (IFIs) by stabilizing the country’s economy; this is translated in the Western governmental circles as an anti-Western attitude. So Khan and his PTI would have to overcome image issues to convince the Western world, India as well as Afghanistan that he is clearheaded about relations with all of them. Fortunately, Khan’s victory and policy speech soon after the result of the July 25, 2018 national election was articulate, amicable and moderate. The speech especially focused on foreign policy issues and relations with key states.
Khan, notwithstanding general criticism by his political opponents and media for being naïve in politics, in his speech was very thorough, in particular regarding foreign policy priorities of his government. He said that his government would like to have solid peace in Afghanistan because if there was peace in Afghanistan, it would result in tranquility in Pakistan.
Regarding China, Khan seems to be giving the most importance to Pakistan’s relations with China, especially when Beijing is investing heavily in Pakistan within the framework of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The PTI must understand that in the international situation, in which Pakistan is facing diplomatic pressure with a near-crippled economy, it is only China which is a great ray of hope. Luckily the realization is very much there within the ranks of the PTI. China has also responded very positively to the PTI’s victory by sending its ambassador to Khan to felicitate him and convey to him that his country would be fully supportive of the PTI government and the work on CPEC projects in Pakistan would be made more brisk.
The PTI Chief and Prime Minister Imran Khan seems also very clearheaded bout Pakistan’s relations with the US. Khan during his policy speech said that his government would like to have “mutually beneficial” relations with Washington. There can be no better description of the bilateral relations that should exist between Islamabad and Washington than these words. This would set the grounds for a new era of relations with Washington.
A very important aspect of Pakistan’s foreign policy is its relations with neighbour and arch-rival India. Although, generally the Indian media has not welcomed the victory of Imran Khan and some of the India media outlets regarded it as a triumph for the anti-India, Pakistani militant, Hafiz Saeed and his organization, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. But at the same time the hardliner Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, called Khan by phone and extended his felicitations on the victory of the PTI. This is a very important gesture by the Indian leader. But, noticeably, it came after Khan in his victory and policy speech stated that if India would come one step forward his government would respond with two steps. This policy speech has set the tone for a new era of relations with India, but it remains to be seen to what extent the country’s strong establishment, which is quite sensitive about Pakistan’s relations with India, would show flexibility. Fortunately, Khan has a huge fan-club in India due to his cricketing career and his continual visits to that country. This goodwill which Khan has in India could be instrumental in meaningfully improving the relations with India.
Imran Khan also mentioned relations with Saudi Arabia of vital importance for Pakistan and would remain to be so during his government. The Saudi ambassador to Pakistan also called on Khan at his residence in Bani Gala and extended his government’s fullest support to the new government of the PTI. Khan previously had some issues with Saudia due to his opposition in the parliament to send Pakistani troops to restive Yemen as desired by Riyadh. However, it seems that Riyadh has ignored this action by Khan and this, indeed, is welcome because it means that Riyadh understands the sensitivity of Pakistan’s foreign policy especially regarding Muslim states.
Last, but not least, Khan in his policy speech mentioned Iran as being of vital importance to Pakistan and he stated that his government would like to further strengthen the relations with Tehran. There is a huge space for improvement of relations between the two countries, especially in the sphere of economic affairs.