Looking towards East Asia

Spearhead Opinion – 30.01.2017

By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

After Pakistan’s independence, Pak-Japanese relations were one of cordial diplomacy. In the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistan’s industry and economy was to a large degree inspired by the Japanese. However, up until recent years there has been a decline in Japan’s Pakistan-centered economic activities. While Pakistan’s domestic security situation is partly to blame for the drift that began to take shape in the past, the internal security situation is much improved now and so has Pakistan’s economic status; yet, there have been no efforts to kick-start relations.

Pakistan first devised its “Vision East Asia” policy to strategically link itself with East Asian regionalism and increase itsoutreach. Historically, Pakistan has had strong ties with East Asian countries as a member of the American-led South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the British led-Colombo Plan in the 1950s.

Since Pakistan has historically shared an overall stable and diplomatic relationship with major East Asian countries like Japan, the government has overtime become complacent about its position and the stability of the Asia-Pacific region.

Neglecting East Asia, however, can prove troublesome for Pakistan in the long-run.

In the current state of politics, there is little room for complacency regarding the future of bilateral relations, or security in the Asia-Pacific region. The incumbent government seems to believe that Pakistan cannot walk and chew gum at the same time and so focusing on issues in India, Afghanistan, and the US has meant blatant neglect of East Asia. 

The belief that foreign policy can only focus on one issue at a time is both untrue and highly dangerous.

Asia-Pacific has become an immensely important region in international politics. There is a crucial need to sharpen Pakistan’s “Vision East” policy in response to the mushrooming friction between India and Pakistan, and India’s foreign policy decision to invest in ties with the US as its anxiousness grows over Pak-China friendship.

It would serve Pakistan well to maintain good relations with both of the world’s two largest economies: China and the US. However, amid growing tension in US-China relations, Pakistan has been naturally pushed further towards its “all-weather friend”: China.

With the US drawdown from Afghanistan, a reordering of global and regional security has been put into play. As Asia-Pacific and South Asia become increasingly important, foreign policy changes and a transition in priorities of key players is being anticipated internationally. People across Asia are understandably preoccupied by the foreign policy directions of the incoming Trump administration. Since the international political environment is transitioning and new axes are being formed the stakes are high for Pakistan.

Pakistani diplomats are not prepared to respond to the tremendous challenges waiting in the South China Sea or the Asia-Pacific region. China aside, the Sharif government’s indifference towards lending diplomatic momentum to other East Asian countries is obvious. The foreign office seems uninterested in the diplomatic and economic opportunities Japan, ASEAN and South Korea may have for Pakistan.

Considering Pakistan’s relationship with Japan, the last several years, have seen no high-level visits. The two last met in February 2011, when President Asif Ali Zardari paid a visit to Tokyo. Before that, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro visited Islamabad in April 2005. Safe to say, there has been a noticeable decline in bilateral interaction over the past decade.

PM Nawaz Sharif made one visit to Thailand in 2013. Except with China, Pakistan’s trade with East Asia (particularly with ASEAN) has seen only modest growth for many years. 

On the contrary, India in line with its “Act East” policy has deepened ties with several East Asian countries, from Mongolia to Fiji. Indian relations with the ASEAN are robust, while Pakistan lags significantly behind. The India-Japan Special Strategic Partnership and the India-Vietnam Strategic Partnership along with South Korea is a strong front for the China-Russia strategic nexus. India is also putting its weight behind US and Japan in an attempt to balance out China’s rise. India intends to continue strengthening its strategic partnerships with the US and Japan. An important foreign policy issue for India is determining whether the China-Pakistan axis can imbalance the USA-Japan-India axis. The US-Japan-India axis has been working well, with the tacit support of Australia.

Pakistan is however a non-entity in regional power dynamics in East Asia. Pakistan’s foreign policy advisors have not allowed the scope of Pakistan’s foreign policy to deviate too far from the ‘more pressing’ issues in countries like India, Afghanistan and the United States.

That being said, Pakistan’s foreign policy is largely influenced by a single factor: India. Initially, Pakistan looked to the US as a powerful potential ally for support against the ‘Indian threat’. Now Pakistan is inclined to put all its eggs in China’s basket. Deep-seated enmity and mistrust with India has led Pakistan to assess foreign policy through a strict security lens. This security-centric approach pushes Pakistan to identify threats rather than opportunities. Whether India is now an existential threat to Pakistan is a different debate altogether but Pakistan’s current foreign policy approach that has predominantly been about looking at international affairs through the lens of India is highly problematic.

China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is already being dubbed as the “game-changer” resented by India. CPEC offers huge investment and collaborative opportunities, but Japan and Japanese companies are opposed to join in because of Japanese enmity with China. Instead, Japan has invested in small-scale socio-economic projects mostly run by Pakistan’s NGOs, reflecting a mere token Japanese presence in Pakistan.

Japan stands to gain a lot if it chooses to participate in Pakistan’s mega-projects such as railways, roads, tunnels, ports, and shipping. It could even become a crucial partner of CPEC and earn entry into Central Asian markets.

To fully reap the benefits offered by CPEC, Pakistan also needs to be proactive in East Asia.

Today, the Vision East Asia policy has become an outdated and forgotten initiative. The Asia-Pacific is a highly crucial region in today’s international political order. There is a need for a major shift in foreign policy strategy towards establishing better ties with East Asia. By choosing to restrict itself to a select few friends and opting out of diversifying, Pakistan is not doing itself any good. Instead, this disposition is isolating Pakistan while India moves ahead and continues to make notable strides with several countries in East Asia.