The recent crisis between Pakistan and India triggered by the Pulwama attack in Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) has once again demonstrated the huge challenges in the foreign policy realm to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led coalition government of Pakistan. The challenges become more complex by the presence of an ostensibly weak coalition government in Pakistan and an extremely nationalist government of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in Delhi. Although the BJP is going to complete its five-year rule soon but there is always a possibility that it may win again in the upcoming national elections. Even if the Indian National Congress, the main opposition party of India, along with some smaller political parties, is able to win the next elections in India, there is no guarantee that the conflict between Islamabad and Delhi would not escalate into a limited war. This is, indeed, a very important aspect of the foreign policy challenges for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government.
Apart from the Pakistan-India conflict and strained relations between them, the process of negotiations between the Afghan Taliban and the United States has also entered a decisive phase. Both sides are claiming that there may soon be a breakthrough in the talks. As Pakistan is playing an anchoring role in the Taliban-US talks, this is yet another challenge for Islamabad to see the talks succeed between the two sides. Thirdly, in addition to the Pakistan-India sour ties and US-Taliban talks, another very important challenge for the coalition government of Pakistan is to improve its not-so-friendly relations with the US. Fourthly, the government of Pakistan also needs to oversee the successful implementation of various projects of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Fifthly, PM Khan’s government also needs to attract substantial foreign investment into Pakistan, particularly from Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Arabian countries.
Insofar as the challenge of a constant threat of aggression from India to Pakistan is concerned, it is so big that PM Khan has to put an assortment of efforts to meet it. To negotiate with the threat from India, the government has to keep an eye on the upcoming elections in India. In case the BJP returns to power in Delhi, Islamabad would have to launch a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, Pakistan would have to improve its defence vis-à-vis India, particularly purchasing some state-of-the-art military hardware, like fighter and surveillance aircrafts. Unfortunately, the US, which has been the main arms supplier to Pakistan, has nearly stopped delivering new military aircraft to Pakistan. The new F-16s fighter jets to Pakistan, which Washington has held back long ago, is a case in point. Therefore, Pakistan would have to buy new fighter jets, either from Russia or Sweden, which is extremely important. However, for buying fighters, Pakistan would have to set aside a huge amount of funds which may not be possible for the government at the moment, given the extremely bad state of the national economy. Thus, in order to buy new military technology in the face of growing threats from India and the increasing military imbalance between Islamabad and Delhi, the PTI government would have to look into the matter with extreme seriousness. On the other hand in order to normalize its relations with India, PM Khan has to improve the quality of its diplomacy to convince the world that India has unleashed a reign of terror in IOK and that the conflict in Kashmir is arguably the only nuclear flashpoint in the world, as nuclear-armed Pakistan and India, in order to defeat the other or survive, could even not desist from using the unusable weapons of war. Pakistan also has to engage India diplomatically, particularly the new government by telling that the conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir is not in the interest of any country. However, if the BJP returns to power, PM Khan would have an uphill task to engage India diplomatically. So far, whatever strategy PM Khan adopted to negotiate with the threat from India, including an unequivocal caution to India to be given unthinkable response to any military aggression and then implementing the same in letter and spirit by shooting down two Indian Airforce jets, arresting one of the pilots and then returning him to India without any precondition, has been exquisite.
PM Khan’s government would have to do whatever it can to help succeed the ongoing talks between Washington and the Taliban. In this connection again, the role of the PTI government role and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi has been commendable by putting all its weight behind the process of negotiations. However, Pakistan’s challenges would not only be limited to successful talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban, but it would have to put in an all-out effort to see a new Afghan political dispensation, in which the Taliban would have a definite role. Once the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan in any shape, it would result in instability in Afghanistan, if the situation is not managed efficiently. In this regard, the role of Islamabad would be crucial. Given the successful role of Pakistan in bringing the Taliban to the negotiations table with Washington on the request of the latter, one is hopeful that a breakthrough is very much possible in restoring stability in Afghanistan. Whatever the nature and form of the new dispensation in Afghanistan and whether the country continues to embroil in conflict, Pakistan must concentrate to secure its 2,640 kilometers long rugged border with Afghanistan. In this connection, the strategy to erect a fence on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is a better strategy.
In the backdrop of the Pakistan-India crisis and Taliban-Washington talks, the Pakistan government’s focus on CPEC projects seems to have got somewhat diverted. The PTI government needs to refocus with full energy on the CPEC, as it is one of the instrumental projects to give Pakistan the much-needed economic space and stability. Islamabad, in the unfolding regional and international situation, would have to further improve its relations with China and even some more projects under or outside the CPEC must be signed with Beijing. In the field of defence, Islamabad must ask China to provide it with latest fighter jets and missiles to further consolidate its position vis-à-vis India. Although the endeavours by the PTI government to expand the scope of Pakistan’s relations with other countries is indeed a shrewd policy, yet overreliance on China is not at all a good strategy, nevertheless China is still the most important ally of Pakistan.
The recent extremely successful visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to Pakistan and the way it was managed by PM Khan and his team is a silver lining for Islamabad, when dark clouds of an economic meltdown hover over the country. The more than $20 billion dollars investment deals MBS signed with Pakistan would go a long way to address our economic woes. However, Pakistan needs to do more to improve its relations with Saudi Arabia as well as the United Arab Emirates, which is another important investor in Pakistan, apart from Qatar and Kuwait, where there is a huge potential for the Pakistani labour force.
PM Khan would also have to expand its relations with Turkey, as it could not only be a great source of investment, but also political and diplomatic support to Pakistan on international forums. At the same time, the PTI government must increase trading relations with neighbouring Iran. Although the fate of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline is almost sealed, yet there are many other avenues of cooperation between the two countries.