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Explained: What Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s US visit means for Pakistan’s relations with the West

It is expected that the visit will repair ties between the two countries, which have been in limbo for over a year, and which reached a low with former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s accusations that the Biden Administration was behind his ouster.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | New Delhi |
Updated: May 31, 2022 11:20:34 am
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Foreign Minister of Pakistan in the new “unity government” of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, is scheduled Monday to leave on a visit to the United States. It is expected that the visit will repair ties between the two countries, which have been in limbo for over a year, and which reached a low with former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s accusations that the Biden Administration was behind his ouster.

Pakistan and US

Given the military-security establishment’s stakes in Pakistan’s foreign relations, the spadework for the 33-year-old’s first solo official visit abroad as Foreign Minister was done by ISI Director-General Lt General Nadeem Anjum, who was in Washington last week and held meetings with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and CIA head William J Burns.

The two visits are the first high-level contact between the two sides since last September, when Pakistan’s then National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf and ISI chief Faiz Hameed got a cold reception while visiting Washington following Imran Khan’s rhetoric, especially his description of US troops’ departure from Afghanistan as Afghans “breaking the shackles of slavery”.

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An urgent reset in the ties is important from Pakistan’s point of view. The military-security establishment has deep historical ties with its counterparts in the US. It does not want to lose this. Also, repairing ties with the US could help Pakistan regain influence over the Taliban in Afghanistan as its interlocutor with the West.

The new civilian regime needs assistance from Western-led lenders as it looks to repair a crumbling economy. Pakistan has now seen that money is no longer on tap from the Gulf countries. The Chinese too have been reluctant to lend any more to Pakistan for fear that it will not be able to repay, reportedly refusing a $6-bn loan for a CPEC power project recently.

For the US, the new government in Islamabad provides an opportunity to get back into a region that it exited in August 2021 after handing over Afghanistan to the Taliban. Concern has grown that IS-K is now established in the mix of terror groups operating in Afghanistan, and the term “Afpak” is back in vogue in the US. Pakistan’s hold over the Taliban was never complete, and is less so now. But the US believes that Pakistan could still provide essential help to stabilise the country, which in turn would help the US secure its interests at a time when Washington’s focus is on Ukraine.

After four years without one, the US named an Ambassador in Islamabad in February this year. Pakistan’s controversial appointee, Sardar Masood Khan, took charge only a couple of months ago when the Biden Administration greenlighted the appointment after a four-month wait.

Coming of age

Bhutto is travelling to New York at the invitation of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken for a foreign ministers’ meeting on world food security being hosted by the US and UN in the context of the war in Ukraine, but the two are expected to hold bilateral discussions on the sidelines.

While the Pakistan establishment expects the young Oxford-educated foreign minister to make an impression in Washington, the visit is also an opportunity for Bhutto, who has to lead the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) into a general election within months, to demonstrate to both the jiyalas (as loyal PPP workers are called) and the sceptics that he can wear the mantle of Benazir Bhutto and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Ever since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto turned his stints as foreign minister (to President Ayub Khan, and later, from 1971 to 1977) into grand international theatre tuned to domestic political constituencies, the Foreign Ministry is where ambitious politicians have hoped to grow as they cut their teeth on Pakistan’s tricky civil-military equations.

Bhutto’s charge as Foreign Minister comes at a time when Pakistan’s diplomacy, not just with the US, but with the entire Western world, is in disarray.

Imran Khan’s ill-timed visit to Moscow on the day Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, his hectoring of Islamabad-based European diplomats, his ire at UAE and Saudi Arabia for not backing his condemnation of India over Kashmir, and his proposal for an alternative Islamic alliance with Turkey and Malaysia, have all ruptured old friendships — and left the world open for Bhutto to put his stamp on, even if under the tutelage of the military-civilian establishment.

Keeping the Kashmir issue alive is an acid test for every Pakistani politician, especially foreign ministers. Bhutto has made a kickstart by presenting a “policy statement” in Parliament against the delimitation award in J&K as one that would enable demographic change, and presenting a joint resolution against India’s “efforts to undermine the internationally recognised disputed status” of J&K. He has also written to the UN Security Council.

Interestingly, the statements came after Pakistan decided to fill a long vacant post in the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi for a diplomat dealing with trade issues. This triggered criticism on social media, compelling Pakistan to clarify that there was no change in trade policy.

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The China equation

Even as it gets on with resetting ties with the US, Pakistan is keen not to give any wrong signals to China. Bhutto has pledged not to allow anyone to harm Pakistan’s “iron-clad friendship” with China, and promised that those behind the suicide attack at Karachi University, which killed three Chinese nationals and their Pakistani assistant, would be brought to book.

According to a report in Dawn, quoting a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, PM Sharif held a “comprehensive” telephone call with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Monday during which he affirmed the government’s “firm resolve” to fast-track China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects. “He also reiterated that Pakistan attached the highest importance to the safety, security and protection of all Chinese nationals working in Pakistan on economic projects and institutions…,” Dawn said.

Some reports suggest that immediately after returning from his US trip, Bhutto will travel to Beijing on the invitation of Wang Yi, with whom he has already held a virtual meeting.

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