On The Side Talking Points

What should determine Pakistan’s foreign policy?

Updated 05 Jun, 2015 01:50am
Flags outside the United Nations headquarters in Geneva | EPA
Flags outside the United Nations headquarters in Geneva | EPA

When Saudi Arabia expects Pakistani soldiers to fight in Yemen, it invokes religion and money to have its way. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Pakistan, official propagandists go into overdrive to highlight the economic and strategic imperatives that bind together Islamabad and Beijing. When we speak of our other neighbours – India, Afghanistan and sometimes Iran – we mostly do so with hostile undertones. And then there is the United States, which looms large over everything that happens in Pakistan. What should drive our relations with these countries and the rest of the world?

The Herald asks a few analysts with inside knowledge of Islamabad’s foreign policy mechanisms.

Pursuing ‘national interest’

Pakistani troops ride Al-Zarar tanks during the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2015 | AFP
Pakistani troops ride Al-Zarar tanks during the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2015 | AFP

National interest should be the only driving force behind Pakistan’s foreign policy. All our alliances should be subjected to this keystone criterion. That said, no country can remain isolated and all relationships between states, bilaterally and multilaterally, are therefore based on mutual interests, which are freely determined and pursued.

But what do we mean by national interest? It lies in enhancing our economic, military and cultural power within our overall ideological framework. We should use our foreign policy to, first and foremost, defend our territory from outside aggression and internal strife. That necessitates strong defense and deterrent capabilities. We have to leverage our relations with nations in the region and beyond, as well as with international multilateral institutions, to attract foreign direct investment, start off joint ventures and promote trade. All these activities should be geared towards accelerating our GDP growth, raising standards of living and improving human development. Moreover, it is a core function of Pakistan’s foreign policy practitioners to project the country’s soft power, one that must be nurtured within Pakistan. A national interest-centred foreign policy will also act as a catalyst for domestic economic development and international clout.

By Masood Khan, Director General of the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, and former ambassador to the United Nations

Shifting regional dynamics

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Islamabad | AFP
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Islamabad | AFP

Pakistan’s sense of insecurity, vis-à-vis a more powerful India, has been the core driver of its foreign policy since Partition. Its relations with its immediate neighbours such as Afghanistan and Iran, and other regional countries such as Turkey and the Gulf States, have all been filtered through this security prism. Its close alliance with the United States-led regional security systems for the past six decades was also shaped by this core insecurity dynamic. The normal pursuit of national interest has been primarily defined in hard security terms by successive governing elites. A wider definition which highlights the pursuit of economic and social prosperity of the people of Pakistan as the rational end goal of its relations with the wider world is mostly absent from strategic thinking.

Changing global trends in regional trade and the growth of Asian economies is forcing Pakistan to readjust the focus of its foreign relations especially within its neighbourhood. Pakistan’s reluctance in getting militarily involved in the Saudi-led war in Yemen is evidence of this new thinking. As Iran looks to rejoin the global economy after sanctions against its exports come to an end, Pakistan is positioning to revive the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. Getting too deeply enmeshed in the Iranian-Saudi struggle in the Middle East would intensify tensions with Iran and adversely impact security in the province of Balochistan. Pakistan’s improved relations with the Ashraf Ghani administration in Afghanistan also reflect this broader shift in its foreign policy framework.

By Simbal Khan, an academic and CEO of Indus Global Initiative

Playing to our strengths

Women work on agricultural land in Lahore | AFP
Women work on agricultural land in Lahore | AFP

Pakistan’s foreign policy ought to be based on our country’s inherent strengths. As the sixth-largest nation in the world by way of population – with reliable demographic data indicating that we are closing in on 200 million people – we should frame a policy which assumes that we possess a reasonable quality of human resources and have an extremely useful geography.

Our human resource base was good enough to make us the only nuclearised Muslim state in the world. Our strength is our agriculture, which enables us to be food-sufficient with a considerable surplus of rice and wheat. We also enjoy an abundance of fruit, vegetables and dairy products and have the capacity to launch all these for export. Our next strength is located in our capacity to weave the finest cotton fabrics in the world, based on indigenously grown raw cotton, which commands strong markets abroad.

We can rightfully boast of the highest quality of craftsmanship in leather, metals, pottery and stitched craft, and are now entering the fashion market at an international level. Our jewellery, gemstones and marble – notably onyx – draw interest worldwide. Moreover, our considerable mineral resources await exploration, as do our deposits of natural gas.

Despite all these strengths, we have fallen into a debt trap because of poor governance and mismanagement, rectifying which is certainly within the realm of the feasible. A growth- and export-driven economy would enable us to exploit our strategic advantage effectively and base our foreign policy on an economically strong agenda.

Syeda Abida Hussain, a Pakistani politician and former ambassador to Washington

Regional cooperation


The welfare of a nation, the power of a state and the importance of its voice in the comity of nations is drawn from the strength of its economy. Therefore, Pakistan’s foreign policy ought to be determined primarily by economic interests. For the first time in three centuries from the West to Asia, a historic shift is taking place in the centre of gravity of the global economy. This provides a unique opportunity for Pakistan to build a prosperous future for its people and emerge as a strong and economically independent state.

Over the last two decades, China and India – with a billion citizens each – have doubled their per capita incomes. According to a recent United Nations Development Programme report, in terms of speed and scale, this economic performance has had a greater impact on the world than the Industrial Revolution in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Given present trends, China will emerge as the largest economy in the world over the next two decades and if South Asia achieves economic integration as envisaged in South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), then South Asia can emerge as the second-largest economy in the world, thereby making the China–South Asia region the greatest economic powerhouse in human history.

A policy of economic integration with China on the one hand and South Asia on the other will not only maximise Pakistan’s economic gains but also provide a balance to its relationship with its larger neighbours. Accordingly, our foreign policy should aim to build not only a North-South economic corridor with China, but also an East-West corridor across Asia, from Iran to Myanmar.

By Akmal Hussain, an economist, author and a professor at Forman Christian College, Lahore

What do you think should determine Pakistan's foreign policy? Sound off in the comments section.

This was originally published in Herald's May 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print