Pakistan’s Diplomatic Tango

Spearhead Analysis – 27.05.2013

By Zoon Ahmad Khan
Research Analysts, Spearhead Research – Pakistan

Pakistan’s Diplomatic Tango

With Nawaz Sharif’s party all set to form the next government, the most significant shift that Pakistan will experience is one of regional alliances. The Pakistan People’s Party faced what can be considered the worst period in US-Pak relations, owing to external as well as internal factors. Pakistan’s border skirmishes with Afghans, the Salala attack that Pakistan never received an apology for, and the icing was Osama bin Laden’s assassination in his hide-out in Abbottabad, only 1.3 km away from Pakistan Military Academy. Our foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Ambassador to the US Hussein Haqqani were both quietly replaced when tensions escalated. Moreover the PPP’s five years in government have been challenging in terms of international relations, and alliances that brought more ruin than help.

Relations with the United States apply also to the Karzai government, as both have common enemies and same interests domestically and in the region. With Operation Endgame just around the corner, for the United States it is paramount to secure the stability of a favorable government. In the region US’s choice of ‘safety net’ is India, who have invested economically and are contemplating providing military support (as per Karzai’s request), building the groundwork for a lasting alliance. While the radicals will pose a threat to the current establishment, an external threat lies in China, the other significant player, which has as much access, and perhaps more potential than India at the moment.

As India and China compete to fill the vacuum the US will leave behind, Karzai’s choice of ally, by default of American involvement, is India over China. India has invested up to US $10billion in Hajigak iron ore deposits, whereas China has put $4.4billion in Logar province to develop what is predicted to be the world’s second largest copper deposit. While the bilateral trade between the two countries is expected to reach $100billion by 2015, the Sino-Indian relationship cannot be termed friendly. They are both competitors before partners. Their rivalry goes back to domestic enmities. The two Asian giants have active border disputes that continue to damage their cooperative ventures, or at least leave a bad aftertaste. For Pakistan this rivalry has proven beneficial over the years, especially through 1965 and 1971 wars when China stepped in militarily. China and Pakistan go back a long way given their mutual concern (in India).

Another significant variable in this equation is Saudi Arabia. Strongly synchronized with the US, Saudis and the US have a common enemy in the region: Iran. The Saudi government has spent decades down-playing and at times even actively fighting Shia influence in the region. For the United States the Khomeini ‘regime’ (technically a theocracy) as a replacement of the US-friendly Shah of Iran, is a menace that complicates her plans. Iran’s civilian nuclear program has been the highlight of US Election 2012, and Israel’s very existence. While the IAEA has not been able to find any truth in Israel’s claims so far, and the whole idea of Iran nuking Israel off the map has been scoffed at, Iran faces heavy sanctions from the UN for going ahead with the program. Saudi government obviously supports these sanctions, while China and India who have shared healthy economic relations with Iran are stepping down, because Afghanistan seems a decent enough replacement. In need of foreign investments and economic growth, Afghanistan offers more than Iran ever could.

For Pakistan the involvement in this war post 9/11 has turned the tide completely. While the 1980s war for the Mujahideen turned Pakistan into a hero, saving the World from Communist expansion (for the Capitalist world) and aiding Muslims brethren in Jihad (in the Muslim World), the latter half of this war has not proven so fruitful diplomatically. With growing radicalization within, Pakistan has been termed as part of the problem, not the solution. During the PPP tenure Pakistan was faced with callous diplomacy, and hostile neighbors. It is possible that the PPP’s inclination towards Iran, and intentions to develop the Iran-Pakistan Pipeline catalyzed hostilities. It is more than probable that the Sovereignty issues Pakistan was facing tone down with a Saudi-friendly government that will not go near the prospects of the pipeline. Already the number of drone strikes has fallen, and President Obama phoned in congratulations within days of the unofficial election results.

For Pakistan the game plan with this elected government, including the vital players has changed completely. During the PPP’s government Iran was a significant stakeholder, and China was far less significant. While a lot was discussed about the pipeline, the last progress made on it was in 2006 during Musharraf’s rule. Now even before Sharif takes his oath the Chinese premier has visited and all seems to go well for the next development in Gwadar. Chinese own interests: better access to Afghanistan (compared to India), better access to the Strait of Hormuz, and the string of pearls (containing India) are served well if they proceed with Gwadar. Simultaneously the United States views the Nawaz government as a better ally for no intended Iran links. While the US is assisting India in securing a better share in Afghanistan than China, they can also not coerce China the way they have Iran. For economic and diplomatic reasons China’s aspirations will have to be dealt with the ‘civilized way’, by reciprocating. Here the US will encourage India with developing Chabahar (Iran). Both can share intelligence, and contain China.

As a complex flavor of allies and adversaries seems to bubble up with a change in government, Pakistan seems better set to achieve her economic and security goals by playing off competitors in the region. With Chinese and Saudi backing, and a clear shift away from Iran, the US will have to appease Pakistan more, and avoid raising sovereignty concerns to sustain the delicate equilibrium in South Asia as they prepare to take the troops home. With no pro-Iran government in the region, the US has fewer reasons to stay on the edge. As far as the Nawaz government is concerned, they will need to use this more favorable set of alliances to overcome our biggest issues: Security and Economy.