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Lessons from Pakistan: how to win friends, influence allies, then squander it all

In the 1950s, the country’s prospects seemed much better than many nations in East Asia and the Middle East. By neglecting economic development, letting magnificent obsessions cloud common sense, and privileging feudal and pre-modern ideologies, Pakistan has fallen rapidly behind its peers.

Written by C. Raja Mohan
Updated: June 1, 2021 8:05:29 am
In the 1950s, Pakistan’s prospects seemed much better than many nations in East Asia and the Middle East. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

It is widely assumed that the pursuit of “strategic autonomy” is a unique attribute of Indian foreign policy. The fact, however, is that all countries, big or small, try and maximise their room for manoeuvre within the constraints that they find themselves in. Let us consider the case of Pakistan.

During the Cold War, Pakistan’s diplomacy was brilliant in pursuing a special relationship with Mao’s China even as it signed onto America’s anti-communist alliances. It became a bridge between the US and China when they did not have relations with each other, by facilitating secret diplomacy between Washington and Beijing in 1971. It was India that found itself at odds with both the US and China in the 1970s and had to turn to the Soviet Union to rebalance the region.

As a new era of Sino-US confrontation unfolds and as India warms up to the US amidst the deepening schism with China, Pakistan has some tricky terrain to negotiate. Pakistan can’t abandon China, its “iron brother”, which has been its most reliable external partner. Yet, Rawalpindi does not want to be totally alienated from Washington in the new geopolitical jousting between the US and China.

As the US withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, Pakistan is eager to build a relationship with Washington that is not tied to US stakes in Kabul. A flurry of high-level contacts between Pakistan and the Biden administration in the last few days has generated much excitement about a reset in bilateral relations.

How Pakistan copes with the new dynamic between the US and China as well as manages the deepening crisis in Afghanistan would be of great interest to Delhi.

But, first, a word on autonomy and alliances. Autonomy is about the basic impulse for enhancing the degree of one’s freedom; alliances are about coping with real or perceived threats to one’s security. Both are natural trends in international politics. How a nation finds the balance between the two imperatives depends on the circumstances. Joining an alliance does not mean ceding one’s sovereignty. Within every alliance, there is a perennial tension between seeking more commitments from the partner in return for limiting one’s own.

There were good reasons for India and Pakistan to choose different foreign policy paths after independence. Nehru’s India believed that it had no external threats and was utterly confident about its ability to navigate the world on its own. Pakistan’s insecurities in relation to India meant it was eager for alliances. And as the Anglo-Americans scouted for partners in the crusade against global communism, Pakistan signed a bilateral security treaty with the US and joined the South East Asia Treaty Organisation and Central Treaty Organisation in the mid-1950s.

Although SEATO and CENTO did not last long, they generated much goodwill for the Pakistan Army in the West. Pakistan might have been in the same bed as the West, but its dream was not about fighting communism in Asia but balancing India. Communist China was quick to grasp this. Rather than target Pakistan’s alliance with a West that was intensely hostile to Beijing in the 1950s, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai saw room to exploit Pakistan’s insecurities on India.

At the Bandung Conference on Afro-Asian solidarity in 1955, Zhou charmed the Pakistani premier, Mohammed Ali Bogra. Pakistan, which denounced Communist China at the beginning of the conference, was much more conciliatory towards Beijing by the end of it.

While Pakistan’s ties with the US went up and down, its relationship with China has seen steady expansion. Pakistan had reasons to be deeply disappointed with the US that could not prevent India from liberating Bangladesh in 1971, despite the security partnership between the two countries.

That anger did not prevent Pakistan from embracing the US again after the Soviet Union sent its troops into Afghanistan at the end of 1979. As the Pakistan army worked with the US to promote a jihad against Russian occupation, it used the renewed partnership with Washington to protect its clandestine nuclear weapon programme — built with generous Chinese assistance — from the American laws on non-proliferation.

The US and Pakistan reconnected in 2001 as Washington sought physical access and intelligence support to sustain its intervention in Afghanistan following the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11. Even as it offered support to the US in Afghanistan, it managed to keep alive the Taliban that was undermining American efforts to stabilise Afghanistan. Now the US wants Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to accept a peaceful transition to a new political order in Afghanistan. In other words, for all the billions of dollars of assistance to Pakistan in the last two decades, the US could not dictate terms to Rawalpindi.

Pakistan army, however, worries that its leverage in Washington will diminish once the US turns its back on Afghanistan and towards the Indo-Pacific. Pakistan does not want to get in the Indo-Pacific crossfire between the US and China. It would also like to dent India’s growing importance in America’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Delhi should not underestimate Pakistan’s agency in adapting to the shifting global currents. Contrary to its image in India as a client state, Pakistan has been good at using its great power alliances to its own benefit. But there are three big problems that now complicate Pakistan’s strategic autonomy.

One is its relative economic decline; Pakistan’s expected aggregate GDP at around $300 billion in 2021 is 10 times smaller than India’s. The per capita GDP of Pakistan at around $1,260 is just a little over half of Bangladesh’s. Second is Pakistan’s enduring obsessions with separating Kashmir from India, and extending its political sway over Afghanistan; both look elusive despite massive political investments by the Pakistan army.

Unsurprisingly, there is a recognition in Rawalpindi that Pakistan needs reorientation — from geopolitics to geoeconomics and permanent war with neighbours to peace of some sorts. That was the message from Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa in March. But translating that into policy is proving hard.

Meanwhile, a third and less discussed element complicates Pakistan’s international politics. Turning Islam into a political instrument and empowering religious extremism seemed fiendishly clever a few decades ago, but today those forces have acquired a life of their own and severely constrain the capacity of the Pakistani state to build internal coherence and widen international options.

In the 1950s, Pakistan’s prospects seemed much better than many nations in East Asia and the Middle East. By neglecting economic development, letting magnificent obsessions cloud common sense, and privileging feudal and pre-modern ideologies, Pakistan has fallen rapidly behind its peers.

It will be unwise to rule out Pakistan’s positive reinvention; no country has a bigger stake in it than India. For now, though, Pakistan offers a cautionary tale on the dangers of squandering a nation’s strategic advantages — including a critical geopolitical location that it had inherited and the powerful partnerships that came its way.

This column first appeared in the print edition on June 1, 2021, under the title ‘How Pakistan plays the world’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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