2019: A testing year in foreign policy

By Syeda Mamoona Rubab

Economic concerns largely shaped foreign policy last year, writes Syeda Mamoona Rubab


Foreign policy is often described as a fire fighting job with the goal of avoiding the worst. Year 2019 underscored that as Pakistan continued to face multiple challenges on the external front.

Looking back at Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) government’s handling of the foreign policy challenges last year, whether it was the Kashmir dispute, Afghan peace process, ties with India, US, China, the Arab world, Europe, one inevitably reaches the conclusion that the results are a mixed bag.

Before analysing the government’s foreign policy handling during its first full year in office, it is important to understand the context in which the various developments took place. The PTI-led government assumed office (in August 2018) at a time when the country was facing one of the worst economic crisis in recent history. The strategy adopted by Prime Minister Imran Khan and his team to steer the country out of the crisis in a way defined the direction of the country’s foreign policy, taking him closer to the Arab world and seeking improved relations with the United States.

Improvement in ties with US, still far from a meaningful reset, actually has its roots in PM Khan accepting President Trump’s request in December 2018 for help with reaching a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The actions subsequently taken by Islamabad in support of the US-Taliban engagement, which had begun in September 2018, brought the two sides (US and Taliban) closer to a deal. This facilitation earned PM Khan his first summit level meeting with President Trump in Washington in July. The US-Taliban agreement should have been signed in September 2019 had it not been for Mr Trump to suspend the talks with the Afghan insurgent group. This delayed the process. As of the end of the year, the deal is still not there, but the decks have been cleared for the agreement, which would pave the way for withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s considerations in pursuing better ties with US were three-fold – getting Washington to go soft on Pakistan at IMF and Financial Action Task Force (FATF); seeking American support on India’s aggressive posture towards Pakistan; and progress towards peace in Afghanistan. These goals were linked to economic revival and improving internal security. The progress made towards achieving these goals so far is that Pakistan successfully concluded the 13th bailout program with IMF, President Trump twice offered mediation between India and Pakistan on Kashmir (even though it may only be symbolic), and Pakistan got a four month extension at FATF for fulfilling the illicit financing watchdog’s requirements with regards to the gaps in its counter-terror financing and anti-money laundering regimes. In a latest sign that Washington was happy with way things were moving, Trump administration in the last ten days of 2019 approved resumption of International Military Education and Training Program, which is considered as a crucial block in Pak-US military to military ties, but had remained suspended for around two years.

Still, a long term policy by Washington with regards to a broad based relationship with Islamabad is still awaited. Till then the transactional character of ties remains.

India, meanwhile, kept posing the most serious foreign policy challenge as well as the foremost threat to the country’s security. 2019 began amidst escalating tensions between the two South Asian nuclear rivals and peaked by the end of February when the two locked in an extremely tense stand-off in the aftermath of Pulwama attack in Occupied Kashmir by a young disgruntled Kashmiri. Aerial skirmishes took place in which India lost two aircraft and one of the pilots was captured by Pakistani forces. External intervention made the two countries step back from the brink and the Indian pilot was returned. For the next few months things went quite with India, which was then occupied with its election. But once Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned to office with a thumping majority troubles restarted.

Modi, shortly after commencing his second term, announced the annulment of Article 370 ending the special status enjoyed by Occupied Kashmir in India’s Constitutional setting. This annexation of the occupied territory by Delhi brought to the fore a major test for Pakistan’s diplomacy, which was then required to challenge India’s illegal action at the international stage. Soon after this, Pakistan through China succeeded in getting UN Security Council to informally discuss the dispute, which meant there were no official outcome of the meeting except for that members talked about the issue behind closed doors. PM Khan later followed up with a forceful speech at the UN General Assembly in his annual address. However, not much changed for the Kashmiris, most of the Western governments and even our Arab brothers maintained their silence on the issue, and the people of the Occupied Valley remain under lockdown and communication blockade by the Indian authorities for what’s now almost 150 days.

The only thing about which Pakistan can be pleased with regards to Kashmir is that international media has begun reporting the Indian atrocities in Kashmir.

Protests in India over the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens have thrown up another opportunity for Pakistan to expose Indian government’s fascist agenda and disregard for its religious minorities. However, as of now when the protests had completed their first fortnight, the foreign ministry was still busy in consultations on how to go about the situation.

The only bright spot in the otherwise dark Pak-India setting was the opening of the Kartarur Corridor, which provided Indian Sikhs visa free access to the Gurdwara. The corridor was inaugurated on the occasion of the 550th birth anniversary of the founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak Dev in November. The corridor, which can be used by up to 5000 pilgrims, is as of now underutilized because of what FO describes as obstacles by India.

Another key feature of Pakistan’s external ties in 2019 was Islamabad getting deeper into the Arab embrace shedding all pretence of ‘policy of balance’ in the choppy waters of Middle Eastern Politics. The Kuala Lumpur Summit fiasco, at the least in the manner in which we pulled out from the event after confirming participation, has left little doubt about where we stand. Every country takes decisions in accordance with its interests, but the sloppy handling of KL Summit participation by the government damaged its credibility not only with Turkey, Malaysia and Qatar, the main drivers behind the initiative, but also with ‘our friends’ as well.

Progress on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) remained lukewarm despite the two sides signing Phase-II of the multi-billion dollar undertaking, which would take it into the industrialization phase and engage China in social uplift projects, and an agreement on the second bilateral Free Trade Agreement. This arguably affected relations with Beijing, believed to be our staunchest ally at the world stage. Chinese Ambassador Yao Jing could probably be pointing to this linkage, when he according to his remarks published in Daily The News, said “he was looking forward to much better Sino-Pak ties in the year 2020, particularly in social sector, and pushing forward industrialization in Pakistan.”

The signing of Pak-EU new strategic engagement plan, participation in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), engagement with Ankara, Tehran and Kuala Lumpur, are all footnotes in Pakistan’s 2019 foreign policy diary.

The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at [email protected]

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here