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Pakistan's regional diplomacy dilemma

Welcome to Foreign Policy's South Asia Brief.

The highlights of this week: Islamabad is fighting for Make contacts with neighbors, New Delhi denies a role in the Pegasus scandal, and a look at Pakistan's growing technology sector.

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Pakistan's regional diplomacy dilemma

In recent months, leading Pakistani leaders have announced a foreign policy shift from "geopolitics to geoeconomics". Put simply, Islamabad wants to strengthen ties with its South and Central Asian neighbors to encourage more trade and investment. It has led to some success stories. However, recent developments with China and Afghanistan underscore the difficulty of this transition.

The change is likely driven by two motivations. One is to ballast the Pakistani economy by creating more markets and trading partners, and by relieving regional tensions that are distracting the country from a greater focus on economic development. The other likely motivation is reputation. Islamabad seeks to improve its tarnished global image by showing that it is a responsible neighbor and not a regional pariah notorious for harboring terrorists.

There have already been successes. That year, Islamabad secured a ceasefire with New Delhi, its greatest rival, easing tensions that led to almost war in 2019. Relations with Dhaka, tense since a brutal conflict that led to Bangladesh's independence in 1971, have improved. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan telephoned his counterpart, Sheikh Hasina, last summer, and the two of them exchanged letters. Khan also visited Sri Lanka earlier this year to improve trade ties with Colombo, with which Islamabad has strong security ties.

China's growing presence in South Asia, fueled by infrastructure investments and, more recently, COVID-19 vaccine exports, gives Islamabad an opportunity to ride on its ally's skirt laps and advance into countries – Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka – where China's influence is growing. Indeed, China's increased engagement may open up Pakistan's own diplomacy – especially if Beijing encourages these countries to explore closer trade and diplomatic ties with Islamabad.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is deepening its engagement in Central Asia, a region that Islamabad considers extremely strategic because of its energy resources. In February, Islamabad signed a trans-Afghan railroad agreement with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Last week it reached an agreement with Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States that focused on stability and connectivity. Islamabad enjoys a decisive advantage in Central Asia: the two top power brokers in the region are Pakistan's ally China and its ever closer friend Russia.

Pakistan has also demonstrated its regional drafting power. In February, his Navy held a five-day exercise in the Arabian Sea involving 45 countries from the region and beyond.

Still, it is a big task to complete a swivel on geoeconomics. The domestic economic constraints recently articulated by Arif Rafiq for Foreign Policy and Hamna Tariq for South Asian Voices are substantial. But also the diplomatic obstacles. India remains the undisputed heavyweight of South Asia despite recent tensions with some neighbors. Witness his leadership role in regional pandemic reactions and his pioneering role for broader regional cooperation through groups like Bimstec. Despite the ceasefire on the border, Indo-Pakistani relations remain in crisis. Islamabad blamed Indian intelligence for a terrorist attack in Lahore in June and ruled out any feedback.

In addition, Pakistan faces challenges with two different but significant relationships. An attack in northwest Pakistan last week that killed nine Chinese nationals – one of the deadliest to ever flown on Chinese targets in Pakistan – sparked unusually sharp expressions of concern from Beijing. While the relationship remains strong, long-standing Chinese security fears in Pakistan are becoming a nuisance – especially given the two main culprits of attacks on Chinese targets in Pakistan, violent separatist groups and the Pakistani Taliban, which are on a resurgence.

Meanwhile, Islamabad's always unstable relations with Kabul have worsened in recent weeks, with Afghan officials furiously accusing Pakistan of providing various forms of assistance to the Taliban. Then, on July 16, the daughter of the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan was attacked in Islamabad. Kabul took the drastic step of recalling its ambassador and other senior diplomats – while Pakistani officials questioned Kabul's version of the events leading up to the attack.

Islamabad views connectivity as a key component of its geo-economic alignment. As a result, the concerns of its main infrastructure partner about the worsening security risks in Pakistan are not to be despised. Furthermore, Islamabad's poor relations with Kabul are a bad sign of a stalled Afghan peace process, as the Afghan government will feel uncomfortable if Pakistan – which has close ties to the Taliban – plays a major role. These tensions add to the volatility and stability that Pakistan needs to make its transition to geoeconomics.

Fierce rivalries, diplomatic tension, and security threats all die hard. And they rain on Pakistan's geoeconomics parade.

27.-28. July: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expected to visit India (no official announcement yet).

29th of July: The Heritage Foundation is hosting a virtual event on “China's Aggressive New Tactics in South Asia”.

India named in the spyware scandal. A high-profile investigation of 17 media companies claims that an Israeli company sold Pegasus spyware to at least 10 governments, including India. The report claims that more than 50,000 phone numbers, including more than 1,000 Indian ones, have been monitored or targeted for possible surveillance.

India's government rejects the allegations. Notably, however, many of the Indians whose phone numbers are on the list are prominent government critics or journalists who have investigated government corruption. (One of the latter group, Sushant Singh, released his assessment of the scandal for FP this week.) New Delhi's involvement, if true, would not be the first case of a South Asian state to use spyware on its own citizens. An investigation by Al Jazeera in February found that the Bangladeshi Army had acquired Israeli technology that could "monitor the cell phones of hundreds of people at the same time."

Nepal's new prime minister wins vote of confidence. Sher Bahadur Deuba, Nepal's new Prime Minister, won a vote of confidence on Sunday. The triumph ensures he will keep his new job for a year and a half if the country holds elections. The Supreme Court disqualified Deuba's predecessor K.P. Sharma Oli, who was in office on July 12, ruled that he had violated the constitution by dissolving parliament twice.

The immediate challenge for Deuba is to face one of the most serious COVID-19 surges in South Asia. Nepal's pandemic wave is now having an impact on the entire public health sector. A new report from the Guardian shows that maternal and newborn mortality has increased significantly over the past year. The increase is attributed to pregnant women not leaving home for doctor's appointments due to the pandemic, resulting in a lack of adequate health care before and during the birth of their babies.

No conclusive Taliban negotiations in Doha. With violence raging in Afghanistan and the Taliban showing no signs of easing their angry offensives, senior members of the government's negotiating team met with their Taliban counterparts in Doha last weekend. The meetings resulted in a joint statement that only promised that the two sides would continue to talk to each other.

Few expected the talks to bring some consequence. Even a brief truce to coincide with this week's Eid al-Adha holiday was not in sight. The Taliban previously agreed brief ceasefire agreements under Eid, including one in May. But as long as Afghanistan's troubled security forces stop putting pressure on the Taliban, the group is unlikely to commit to sustainable negotiations, let alone compromises and concessions.

A promotional note: This week the Wilson Center launched Hindsight Up Front, a new initiative that will produce events, research, interviews and more about the future of Afghanistan, its people, the region and why everything matters.

On May 24, 2019, people work at the National Incubation Center, a start-up incubator in Lahore, Pakistan.ARIF ALI / AFP via Getty Images

When you think of thriving high-tech industries in South Asia, you think more of India. But Pakistan is quietly building its own vibrant sector. According to its government, the country has 2,000 registered technology companies and produces 20,000 new IT graduates every year. Pakistani innovators and software applications have received international attention and awards.

Last month, Islamabad announced plans to double the country's IT sector in two years through the establishment of a dozen "tech zones" aimed at creating job opportunities for young graduates. In 2021, according to a Tech Crunch report released earlier this month, "Pakistani startups are well on their way to raising more money than the past five years combined." Much of their funding comes from Asia, the Middle East, and "even famous Silicon Valley investors." However, overregulation and censorship are obstacles. Islamabad regularly takes action against technology platforms. This week, the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority blocked access to TikTok, citing inappropriate content.

“Last night we saw a report that was supplemented by a few sections with just one aim – to do whatever is possible and humiliate India on the world stage, sell the same old narratives about our nation and derail India's path of development. ”

– Amit Shah, India's Interior Minister, reacts to the release of the Pegasus Spyware Report.

The Indian strategic analyst C. Raja Mohan argues in the Indian Express that we should not overestimate China's role in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal. “Neither the prospect of mining Afghanistan's natural resources nor the vanity of being the newest superpower will force China to plunge into the Afghan vacuum,” he predicts.

Former Sri Lankan Official Harim Peiris claims in an open letter to the new finance minister Basil Rajapaksa published on the island that Colombo must change its foreign trade policy: “A sound foreign policy is a must for the economy of an island state … with China as the only superpower in the world, was an unwise approach. "

Arifa Noor, a Pakistani journalist, writes for Dawn that just because US troops are leaving Afghanistan doesn't mean America's military operations will end. "The fact that there is a lot of outcry in the US about not abandoning the Afghan people, and the achievements since 2001, means that violence continues to be used – from afar," she says.

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