Dr. Hasan Askari
Pakistan is expected to experience three positive and three negative developments in 2017. The three positive developments that are going to be a source of strength include the progress on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), prospects of improved relations with Russia and the growing Russian and Chinese interest in facilitating political accommodation between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghanistan government.
The negative developments are the problems in the relations with India and Afghanistan, increased strains in the Pakistan-U.S. relations under the new U.S. administration headed by Donald Trump, and Pakistan’s internal disharmony and political polarization.
Pakistan’s success depends on how it cashes on the positive developments and contains the fall-out of the negative developments. This objective can be achieved if the leaders in power are committed to serving the ordinary citizens and engage in equitable socio-economic development.
The CPEC offers a much needed opportunity to Pakistan to strengthen its economy and crate ample job opportunities for its people. It is equally beneficial to the Chinese economy, especially the economy of the Xinjiang province. China gets a new sea access through Gwadar in a region where no country is hostile towards China. It stands to gain economic dividends so much that Gwadar remains important for China even if there is no military use of this seaport. However it will take 8 to 10 years of sustained effort on the part of China and Pakistan to make this project a reality. The political and professional steps Pakistan adopts in 2017 will go a long way to complete the project as quickly as possible. Pakistan needs to recognize that it can cash its geographical location if roads, railways and pipelines through its territory connect four regions, i.e., Central Asia, the Middle East, Xinjiang region of China and South Asia.
The prospects for improved relations between Pakistan and Russia offer a major breakthrough for Pakistan in the regional affairs. Traditionally the Soviet Union/Russia was close to India and it had a problematic relationship with Pakistan. Now, as India moves closer to the United States, Russia is exploring new options in the region. Pakistan is one such option that Russia wants to cultivate. Pakistan’s response to this opportunity has been slow.. Up to now, important decisions have been made in-principle for Russia’s contribution to Pakistan’s economic development and the two countries are about to finalize a deal for supply of helicopters and limited military equipment to Pakistan. These measures materialize quickly. . Further, Pakistan and Russia have been talking of expanding trade but there has not been any significant increase in their bilateral trade over the last two years.
Third positive development pertains to the on-going internal turmoil in Afghanistan. China and Russia are now taking a direct interest to facilitate a dialogue between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government. These two states are better placed than Pakistan to pursue peace inside Afghanistan because both the Afghan Taliban and the Kabul government want to cultivate these two states. Pakistan alone cannot pursue the peace agenda in Afghanistan because there is a lack of trust between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan is now extending full support to, and working with, Russia and China for seeking political accommodation and peace in Afghanistan.
While strengthening these three trends in regional and bilateral domains, Pakistan will have to manage three negative aspects of its foreign policy. The relations with India have touched their lowest point in 2016 as the Modi government in India promoted Hindutva based ultra-nationalism and engaged in a massive campaign at the global level to get Pakistan designated as the terrorist state. There are little, if any, prospects of improvement in their relations in the next six months. Similarly, Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan have run into serious problems over the last two years. Both sides have a list of grievances against each other. There are difficulties in Pakistan’s relations with Iran. Pakistan’s leadership does not show practical interest in getting gas and electricity from Iran, which the latter attributes to the increased Saudi influence on the Nawaz Sharif government. The scope for expanding bilateral trade between Pakistan and Iran has not been fully explored.
New developments to the disadvantage of Pakistan are expected to crop up in Pakistan’s relations with the U.S. under Donald Trump. The U.S. economic assistance, already on decline, is expected to further go down in the first Trump budget It will be a challenging task to deal with the unpredictable Trump Administration.
The growing internal political disharmony and polarization in Pakistan are likely to adversely affect the performance of the government so far as the delivery of basic services to the common people. Even if Nawaz Sharif overcomes the challenge of the Panama Leaks, his government will drift from crisis to crisis in 2017.
Pakistan will have to overcome these negative developments in order to cash on the three positive developments. The government must assign the highest priority to reducing disharmony and conflict in the society. The current economy serves the people in power and the rich. It should be turned an economy that serves the common people and reflects equity and fairplay. The dissatisfaction of the common people makes them vulnerable to the appeals by extremist and hardline religious groups that promote bigotry and intolerance in the name of some kind of religious and political ideology.