Year 2020 was tumultuous, to say the least, for Pakistan on the foreign policy front. Not just relationship with India saw further deterioration but regional developments and realignment further compounded Pakistan’s challenges. The New Year started with Pakistan saying that India in a bid to divert attention from the multiple domestic problems might resort to a “false-flag operation”, leading to any “misadventure”. Pakistan not only briefed permanent UNSC members about the possible Indian threat but also reached out to friends telling them in unequivocal terms that any misadventure by India would be met with a “robust and all-out response”.
Let’s see what Year 2021 holds for Pakistan in terms of foreign policy, against this backdrop.
A major development coming soon after the start of the New Year is the inauguration of Joe Biden as the next President of the US, on January 20. The change of guard at the White House is not just important for Americans, but people the world over, including Pakistanis. The reason is that Biden has already announced undoing some of the changes brought by Donald Trump. For Pakistan, the crucial issue remains whether Biden would stick to the Trump’s Afghan peace plan. On the face of it, there is no change in Biden’s policy in comparison with that of Trump. The incoming President also seeks US troops withdrawal. In fact, in 2009 he had opposed the troops surge when he was vice president under the Obama Administration. But unlike Trump, Biden may not seek hasty troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, something Pakistan and other regional countries don’t mind. Any hasty withdrawal, Pakistan fears, could leave a security vacuum, throwing the country into a new wave of uncertainty.
Another policy change that Pakistan will watch out for is Biden’s approach towards Iran and Arab countries particularly Saudi Arabia. Biden seeks to revive the Iran nuclear deal, but at the same time wants to be tough on the Saudi leadership. The revival of the Iranian nuclear deal may make Pakistan’s foreign policy less challenging. However, navigating the longstanding ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE through rough waters will surely test the diplomatic skills of Pakistani leadership. The Saudi Foreign Minister is expected to visit Pakistan soon while Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the UAE is also on the cards. These high-level exchanges may help remove some of the irritants in the ties. But Pakistani officials admit that with the region undergoing a transformation, the nature of relationship between Pakistan and the Arab world may not remain the same.
The relationship with India is not going to improve in the foreseeable future, although with Biden at the helm, the India human rights abuses in Occupied Kashmir may come under increased US scrutiny. Nevertheless, there will be no strategic shift in the US approach as it needs to prop up India to counter China. The worry in Pakistan is that the US is no more accommodating Pakistan’s strategic concerns. The US is keen to build defence of India against China, something that naturally creates conventional and strategic imbalance between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
In this context, Pakistan has no other options but to further deepen ties with China, our all-weather friend.
Finally, foreign policy is a reflection of domestic policies. With opposition parties seeking the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan by threatening mass resignations and a long march, it may trigger political and economic instability. The key for Pakistan to achieve foreign policy goals is to have internal political and economic consolidation. But that seems a distant dream in 2021.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 4th, 2021.