Pakistan’s foreign policy reset hits a dead end
13 Jul 2022|

When Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government fell in a vote of no confidence in April, his detractors in the power elite claimed that the change of government would lead to improved ties with the world and an easing of the country’s economic crisis.

Khan, they said, had ruined Pakistan’s relations with the West with steps like an ill-timed visit to Russia that coincided with the invasion of Ukraine. They also alleged that his government had harmed ties with long-time ally China, including by levelling accusations of corruption in projects that were part of the Belt and Road Initiative–linked China–Pakistan Economic Corridor.

But the foreign policy reset pursued by the new coalition government and the Pakistan Army, which had backed Khan until relations soured late last year, has yielded few tangible dividends. Three months after Khan’s ouster, no country has come to offer Pakistan extraordinary support as inflation soars and the country faces a balance-of-payments crisis. In fact, Pakistan’s relations with long-time partner China appear to be facing a stress test.

In early April, the powerful Pakistan Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa publicly suggested at a security forum in Islamabad that Pakistan had been pushed into dependence on China. General Bajwa’s inartful messaging came as the army had been signalling for some time the need to rebalance relations with China and America.

And then, in late April, a terrorist attack took the lives of Chinese nationals in the port city of Karachi. Beijing, losing confidence in Islamabad’s ability to secure Chinese nationals, has since requested permission to deploy Chinese private security contractors to Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Pakistani commentators tied to the ruling coalition have fostered the impression that concessions to the United States—like drone basing or overflight rights—could be exchanged for economic relief measures. But Pakistan’s attempted rebalancing to the West has done little in this regard.

The International Monetary Fund continues to drive a hard bargain, insisting that Islamabad raise electricity and fuel prices, ramp up tax collection and make sizeable budget cuts. While the US may desire a counterterrorism presence in the region, its withdrawal from Afghanistan has eliminated the main source of leverage Pakistan had over it: the lines of communication to supply American and coalition forces.

There is simply little appetite among Pakistan’s bilateral and multilateral partners to continue to subsidise the Pakistani elite’s reckless macroeconomic policies. In fact, Pakistan’s economic distress and its greylisting by the Financial Action Task Force have proved the efficacy of economic compellence.

The West’s leveraging of Pakistan’s economic precarity has not only forced Islamabad to take action against leaders of groups like Lashkar-e Taiba, but also constrained its ability to defy the West strategically. For example, fear of US secondary sanctions is one reason why the country’s commercial and governmental institutions are afraid to source discounted Russian fuel. In contrast, India has ramped up imports of Russian oil, with no repercussions from the West.

America’s deference to India reflects its perceptions of New Delhi’s importance to its efforts to counter Beijing in the Asia–Pacific region. This imposes a ceiling on cooperation with Islamabad, limiting it to the non-strategic domain. Pakistan and the US can cooperate in areas like climate change. And this may satisfy Pakistani interlocutors keen on building their image at home with photo-ops with Western counterparts. But proximity to America may also be a political liability in Pakistan.

In the early decades of the Cold War, prominent American visitors, including First Lady Jackie Kennedy, were greeted with tremendous enthusiasm by the Pakistani public. Today, however, anti-US sentiment is rife in Pakistan, and it may be a factor in Pakistani electoral politics. Most Pakistanis, according to a survey by Gallup Pakistan, are now ‘angry’ about the removal of Khan as prime minister, and close to a majority believe his claims that his downfall was due to an American ‘regime change’ campaign.

Pakistan’s foreign policy is at a crossroads. Its power elite rightly recognise the need to avoid getting caught up in the US–China power struggle. And it has taken meaningful action against international terrorist groups based in the country. But deep economic and governance reforms at home are what will ultimately increase foreign direct investment, shape mutually beneficial trade partnerships, drive sustained and equitable economic growth, and increase its national power.

The habit among the Pakistani elite of bartering strategic and security concesssions to foreign powers for modest economic aid will have little impact in a country as large as Pakistan. And, as Pakistan’s recent history has shown, this approach is likely to result in a domestic backlash that Pakistani rulers will invariably attempt to quell through political repression—denying the country the very stability it needs in order to thrive.