In the absence of a foreign minister, Pakistan failed to revamp ties with most of its immediate neighbours in 2016.
The government’s critic, including the Opposition, even went as far as calling the nation’s foreign policy a failure. This prompted a rejoinder from the Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz who posited that Pakistan had been pursuing a proactive foreign policy to secure its national interest in an evolving geostrategic environment.
Let’s look at how the nation’s ties with its neighbours unfolded over the year:
Pakistan-India ties have remained tumultuous since Independence. 2015 ended on a good note when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise stopover in Lahore on his way back from Afghanistan to attend the wedding ceremony of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter and both leaders agreed to resume bilateral dialogue earlier suspended by New Delhi.
The development followed meetings between foreign secretaries and national security advisers of both nations. An attack on the Indian airbase at Pathankot in the beginning of the year, however, stymied progress on this account. New Dehli were quick to lay the blame for the attack on Pakistan, however, Islamabad denied the accusations.
Meanwhile, tension in Indian-occupied Kashmir (IoK) spiked after the killing of popular rebel leader Burhan Wani in July. The ensuing uprising led to a war of words between New Delhi and Islamabad, both accusing each other of fuelling unrest in the region.
Relations between the two states further frayed in September when armed militants launched a deadly assault on an Indian military base in Uri. India’s civilian and military leadership blamed Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) for executing the attack.
The attack provided the National Democratic Alliance government with the ammo it needed to drum up war hysteria as the Indian Army moved heavy artillery to the Line of Control. The two nations continue to frequently trade cross-border fire, imperiling lives across both sides of the de facto border.
Pakistan’s ties with Afghanistan remained tense throughout the year. Analysts believe ties between the two nations will continue to remain hostage to the Taliban if Kabul and Islamabad do not engage. The underlying mistrust between the two neighbouring countries has squandered many opportunities of fostering an environment conducive to the peaceful settlement of the protracted Afghan conflict.
2016 commenced with a silver lining for both nations with the revival of talks between Kabul and Afghan Taliban. It also marked the first time the Taliban confirmed a visit to Islamabad by its negotiators. Things went downhill from there as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced a policy shift just before talks were scheduled to begin in April. His announcement followed a suicide attack on a security agency’s office in the Afghan capital. Prospects for talks further worsened when Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a US drone strike in Balochistan in May.
Relations further tensed when Afghan forces resorted to “unprovoked firing” to disrupt the construction of a gate at Torkham. Ensuing skirmishes resulted in casualties on both sides. The border remained closed for five days and all trade was suspended.
With the Afghan president and his Indian counterpart taking potshots at Pakistan over the Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar, relations ebbed further. Ghani’s tirade provoked a strong reaction from Pakistan with Sartaj Aziz cautioning Kabul against airing “false and baseless allegations”.
All-weather friend Beijing promised investment as high as $46 billion in the form of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Touted as the uber-fix for just about everything, the massive Chinse interest coincided with Pakistan’s growing resentment towards the US. In such a scenario, Pakistan was left with no other choice but to tap Chinese potential and reach out to a rising Russia.
China also stonewalled New Delhi’s bid to secure NSG membership. Moreover, Beijing also made a case for Pakistan’s inclusion in the prestigious group if India was accorded an exception over its non-NPT status. As tension escalated between Islamabad and New Delhi, Chinese PM Li Keqiang expressed all-out support for Pakistan on Kashmir.
In an ideal world, the removal of international sanctions from a resource-rich neighbouring country should result in increased regional trade. Alas, Pakistan’s contemporary relationship with Iran continues to buck logic.
The Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline was overshadowed by international political machinations and the government’s failure to withstand concerted US pressure. The government could have also instrumentalised the aforementioned window of opportunity to curb rampant oil smuggling by strengthening trade ties with Iran. Although both states have publicly expressed hope of linking Gwadar to Chabahar, progress on the front remains negligible.
Russia, Iran ties with Taliban stoke Afghan anxiety
Our leadership should realise that a vibrant economy with minimum dependence on international aid increases foreign policy options. National interest cannot be sacrificed at the altar of growing socio-economic inequity, financial malpractice and squandering national wealth. Pakistan needs to pursue an aggressive foreign policy to secure its national interest in a global environment forever in flux.