Pakistan’s perceived encirclement

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Comment
Masood Khan

THESE days, Pakistani media and analysts are paranoid about Pakistan’s encirclement and see this as a failure of Pakistan’s foreign policy. A series of events have reinforced this anxiety. Last month was particularly eventful in fuelling such fears. India, Iran and Afghanistan singed a trilateral agreement to link India’s west coast to Chabahar to Afghanistan. India announced a sizable investment, some US $ 500 million, for the development and operation of two terminals and five berths of the Chabahar port for 10 years. Indian journalists have exulted that by signing the deal it has bypassed Pakistan and reduced the value of the Gwadar port and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The US Congress scuttled an F-16 jet fighter aircraft sale to Pakistan and India takes credit for blocking the deal. The US launched a drone strike that killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the Taliban leader on Pakistani soil and thus impaired prospects for a dialogue process for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. That is not all. India has been successfully cultivating closer relations with Pakistan’s traditional allies – Saudi Arabia, UAE and others – making fresh inroads presumably at the expense of Pakistan’s interests. Prime Minister Modi, in his meetings with foreign leaders, has been frequently denigrating Pakistan.
We need to understand if these events signal a deliberate encirclement of Pakistan. They do; and they do not. In all these events, India is a common factor; and India has openly vowed to isolate Pakistan. Gone are the days when India used to pretend that it as a major power and would be dismissive and nonchalant towards Pakistan. It is part of its policy now to demonize Pakistan to squeeze whatever diplomatic space Pakistan has. Sandwiched between India and the US, Afghan leadership, despite its periodic attempts to reach out to Pakistan, is getting sucked, and quite willingly, into an orbit that would make it more distrustful of Pakistan. In many instances, Afghan leadership itself may be stoking American concerns about Pakistan. Iran does not gain much from isolating Pakistan.
Our babes-in-the-woods, naive reactions to these developments, however, do not speak to the complex situations in our neighbourhood. These are protests highlighting our inefficacy and national depression, without eliciting clear thinking and remedial measures. We tend to see the world through a moral compass that would force other nations, even hostile to Pakistan, to align their plans and priorities to Pakistan’s strategic worldview. In the real world, India, Iran and Afghanistan would pursue their interests, without using Pakistani compass. The US would make its own determination about drone attacks in the light of Pakistan’s likely befuddled responses and the peace and reconciliation process after Afghan Taliban’s refusal to join talks.
World politics is not static; it is dynamic in which both the expected and the unexpected would continue to happen. We have our own limitations. At the moment, in the absence of dialogue and trust, we cannot allow unhindered access to India, through our territory, to Afghanistan and Central Asia. For that conditions have to be ripe. We would continue to support the Afghan peace process but we cannot start open military operations against Afghan Taliban. And, while we are keen to start a new phase of relations with Iran, practical and visible steps need to be taken by Tehran to dismantle Indian spy networks operating out of Iranian soil. The Iranian government has accepted the legitimacy of this demand. If all these policy choices of ours are sound, we should not be merely rattled by the initiatives taken by India, Iran and Afghanistan, but should have braced for them.
Our stance should be proactive rather than reactive. After finalizing the deal on Chabahar, India is swiftly moving to opening a dialogue with Bangladesh for the development of its Pair port. President Xi Jinping and President Hasan Rouhani have identified Iranian ports as an area for cooperation between China and Iran. A Chinese consortium has shown interest in participating in the development of the Chabahar port and building an industrial zone there. The world is multi-angular, not unilinear.
Pakistan and Iran have credulously claimed that Gwadar and Chabahar are not rivals, but sister, complementary ports. Pakistan should exude enough confidence to translate this motto into reality. In this context, it is important that Pakistan does not miss its timelines for Gwardar and CPEC because of political instability, indecision, for lack of consensus. Pakistan should also try to make plans to develop other ports – Pasni, Ormara, Gadani – along Pakistan’s pristine coastline to develop its maritime economy on a large scale.
Despite the strains in its relations with Delhi and Kabul, Pakistan has a stable, expanding relationship with China. We should continue to consolidate our historic ties with China and connect CPEC more intimately with One Belt One Road. Pakistan’s border with Iran is peaceful, by and large, and we have new, fresh opportunities in the Gulf, Africa and South East Asia. Pakistan should not lament and grieve about the developments over which it has little control, for instance in regard to the Indo-Iran-Afghan deal, and focus on what it is doing well and what it can do. Our neighbours will do what they have to do and we should work to enhance our political and economic space in the region and beyond.
In addition to the CPEC, we should open up our Western corridor through Iran, which would give us access to Central Asia, Turkey and Europe. This is not a pipe dream, but a doable agenda. Similarly, we should create new economic outposts in Africa, the most neglected continent in our diplomacy. Africa is a rising continent, it is apolitical vis a vis Pakistan, and because of Pakistan’s participation in peacekeeping missions, Pakistan has a reservoir of goodwill in West, Central, and East Africa. Pakistan needs to build on this goodwill to create new professional and entrepreneurial platforms with African countries.
We should walk the tightrope of the Middle East skilfully. The goodwill for Pakistan is still there, recent misunderstandings notwithstanding. In the coming days, the Middle East, and especially the Gulf States, would become more dependent on Pakistan for jobs, businesses and joint ventures. We should steer clear of ideological controversies and focus single-mindedly on win-win economic cooperation with the Middle Eastern countries.
Despite the recent turbulence in our relations with the US, we should lower the rhetoric and manage the cordiality and functionality of the relationship at a realistic level. In this context, Pakistan’s red lines, for instance on drones, should no more remain blurry as in the past. We should also try to convince American leadership that their policy of partisan stances favouring Delhi and Kabul are not a good recipe for stability in South Asia. At the same time, we should work to restore and renew faith in the Pakistan-US relationship so that we can pursue our Knowledge Corridor with the US and expand our economic, scientific and technological partnerships with the United States’ public and private sectors.
Finally, our new beginnings with Russia and Europe are promising. Opening with Russia, in particular, needs careful nurturing. Again, the objective here should be to enlist Russian support to bolster our security capabilities and strengthen our economic and manufacturing muscles.
There may be wilful or inadvertent attempts to encircle Pakistan. These are abiding challenges to our statehood in a strategically difficult and complex neighbourhood. We cannot relocate Pakistan to avert the challenges we face. But we should persist in developing the necessary ingenuity to break out of the circles around us and make maximum use of the abundant opportunities that we have inside and outside Pakistan to build our own bridges, conduits and corridors across the region. As long as we do not neglect the primacy of our national security and economic development, we will not fail in our endeavours.
—The writer is Director General Institute of Foreign Relations Islamabad and a former Ambassador. He also worked in Pakistan Embassy in Washington from 1997 to 2002