Neo-Bilateralism: Pakistan Avoiding a Catch-22

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Pakistan has long remained under the radars of the great powers as a courtesy of her geostrategic and geopolitical significance. Since its inception, Pakistan has been swayed by the policy meddling of the external powers which kept on intensifying with the passing time. Pakistan’s foreign, national, security, economic and diplomatic interests and ultimately their associated policies had for the most part been crafted in line with interests of these power centers. Accordingly, Pakistan’s foreign policy followed an uneven trajectory right from the very independence and still remains somewhat similar.

The turbulent foreign policy of Pakistan reflects the policy failures that has come with a great cost. Pakistan became the victim of terrorism and extremism with the loss of lives of combatants and civilians alike. It has been labelled as sponsor of terrorism and put to FATF grey list. Pakistan was clamped with economic sanctions that added fuel to the fire of country’s already ailing economy.

Historical Oversight.   Pakistan-being situated at one of the critical junctures of the global power chessboard, has never recognized her true potential. Rather she has always fell prey to these giants pursuing their interests at the cost of Pakistan’s national interests, her security and territorial integrity. Nevertheless, Pakistan has also done its bit to worsen the situation. Pakistan’s reliance on the Western bloc and signing of mutual defense agreements with the US (SEATO and CENTO) though might be the need of hour as per some scholars, ultimately resulted in the dismemberment of the country as US failed to fulfil the commitment of foreign aid assistance. It did not end here and Pakistan once again stood up to provide her services for containing USSR in Afghanistan, a major policy short sidedness that had wretched the entire socio-politico-security fiber of the country.

Pakistan has suffered a lot by jingoistic approaches of the Western bloc it preferred to choose. Though it had at some instances provided Pakistan with financial and military aid but a glimpse at larger picture suggests that Pakistan’s aptitude had been seriously impeded during this entire period of external power’s dominance in Pakistan’s foreign and security policy. It had not only pushed Pakistan at the brink of internal chaos rather made it what is usually referred to as a security state. Perceived threats from both eastern and western borders kept Pakistan’s policies overshadowed by the security concerns. Consequently the economic progress curtailed, the institutions failed to deliver and nation building had been left out in the cold.

Bilateralism in the context of contemporary geopolitics.    Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s concept of bilateralism was a major breakthrough in the history of Pakistan’s foreign relations. During the cold war it opened greater avenues for Pakistan’s foreign policy. His policy authorized an independent and equal relations with both the powers and non-interference from any external power. The thought behind such policy was none other than unchaining Pakistan’s foreign policy that had been previously linked with the interests of the alliance system rather than her national interests.

Bhutto’s bilateralism came at the time when Pakistan had already been stabbed at back by its so-called security guarantor and had paid a price for aligning her interests with one bloc. Henceforth, it was the need of an hour to realign Pakistan’s foreign policy on equal footing with the major powers as well as with the rest of the world.

In a current geopolitical scenario-escalating US-China strategic competition, Pakistan again stand at the brink of chaos. Where US is skeptical of China-Pakistan strategic alliance as a counter to US hegemony in the region and want Pakistan to explicate her intentions. China at the same time have also been courting Pakistan. These concerns apart, Pakistani authorities have time and again reiterated abstaining from any such actions that would come at the cost of Pakistan’s national interests. Moeed Yousuf stressed: “We are not in the business of picking sides.

 Pakistan’s national, economic, security and diplomatic interests are not just aligned to either China or US rather they are entangled with both the powers. Pakistan cannot afford to let go any of the side and need to strike balancing relations with the two. According to Michael Kugelman:  “Pakistan needs deep alliance with China while maintaining workable relations with the US to allow for a degree of commercial cooperation with.”

Prioritizing National Interests.               No one can be blamed for our personal incompetence and policy failures. It’s a high time for Pakistan to calibrate its foreign relations by prioritizing its national interests. Pakistan has to consider both the options simultaneously as it cannot afford to upset either China or US.  

U.S. and Pakistan have witnessed many ebbs and flows in their relations. Despite all the prejudices, both the states had and continue to have mutual interests in numerous sectors. Pakistan had helped US in achieving its interests by serving as a client state. Subsequently US had been pouring billion dollars aid for Pakistan be it in financial domain, developmental projects, exchange programs, military training, institution building or counter terrorism efforts.

The changing geostrategic landscape reflects the probability of ensuing cooperation once again on issues like Afghan Peace Talks, FATF specifically and counter terrorism, peace and stability efforts generally.  As US intend to withdraw from Afghanistan sooner or later, it is a great opportunity for Pakistan as no state other than Pakistan can help US during this time. Furthermore, it lies in the greater interests of Pakistan to have a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan that would ultimately assure a secure western border. Pakistan can avail this opportunity to get its counter terrorism efforts recognized by the world generally and by US specifically. This could ultimately translate into the revision of FATF decision of keeping Pakistan in the grey list.

China on the other hand, has been one of the largest trading partner of Pakistan. Both the states have been collaborating in areas including economic development, defense and security.  Similarly, under BRI’s flagship project CPEC; China has also brought huge investment in terms of infrastructural development, jobs and economic uplift for Pakistan. China has been a reliable ally of Pakistan which it has demonstrated frequently. Growing strategic partnership of both allies is evident from joint ventures in the fields of business, defense, economics, trade, maritime, industries etc. In the words of Prime Minister Imran Khan: “Our economic future is now linked to China. China is growing at a faster pace than probably any other country. Pakistan can really benefit from the way China has developed.

Henceforth, Pakistan need to learn from the mistakes of the past and try not to repeat them. If Pakistan became successful in striking a balance between both the powers, it would be an assurance for stable and prosperous Pakistan.

Conclusion.    Marked by the recurrence of political, social, diplomatic and economic turmoil, Pakistan now is faced with another challenge crucial to its stability. Yet, if dealt with shrewdness it can offer a road of opportunities. Pakistan cannot afford to choose the path it had chosen in the past as it would lead towards an endless route of suffering and chaos. This is the critical foreign policy decision that would craft the future security and strategic dynamics of Pakistan. It is the need of an hour to devise a comprehensive policy where the national security policy, foreign policy, and Pakistan’s official narrative need to be in line with the country’s core strategic interests. Pakistan can reap the benefits of taking both US and China side by side in light of prioritizing its vital interests.

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About Madina Ali Zamani 1 Article
Madina Ali Zamani is a graduate in Strategic Studies from National Defense University. She has previously interned at ISSI, MoD, and currently pursuing an internship at ISSRA. Her areas of interest include International Relations, Contemporary security, Nuclear Strategy, Psychological Warfare, and Geopolitics. She can be reached at [email protected]

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