Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Seven Strategic Dimensions

Shahid H. Raja
18 min readAug 6, 2021

Introduction

Thanks to its unique geostrategic location, an asset if properly and prudently leveraged, Pakistan is a pivotal state in the region whose friendship is crucial for any global power interested to further its foreign policy objectives in this part of the world. However, since independence, Pakistan’s strategic culture or the mindset of the ruling elite which has evolved through the interaction of its historical legacies, the geographical peculiarity of the country, economic imperatives, and socio-political structure, has been dominated by three inter-related fears namely

  1. Avoiding two-front war: Firstly, it was facing an existential threat from two fronts, namely from India on its western borders, and Afghanistan on its Eastern borders. As Pakistan cannot win a two-front war, it is therefore essential that there is a neutral, if not an overtly pro-Pakistan regime, in place in Afghanistan
  2. Need for extra-regional linkages: Secondly, due to a lack of geographical depth and resource deficiency, Pakistan cannot defend itself on its own, and therefore must rely on some global power to assist it in enhancing its defence capability. This thinking dominated the strategic culture of Pakistan during the first two decades of its existence.
  3. Need for Nuclear Deterrence: Thirdly, this existential threat cannot be mitigated through conventional defence as Pakistan cannot win against India in a conventional war, therefore it must pursue the nuclear option. This thinking supplemented the above two after its breakup in 1971.

Recently, two additional fears have dominated the strategic culture of Pakistan namely fear of economic collapse due to inapt economic policies of successive regimes coupled with frequent regime changes, and the fear of home-grown terrorism, a spin-off of our past security doctrine.

Pakistan Foreign Policy: Seven Strategic Pillars

Consequently, to safeguard its national interests without getting embroiled in the great power competition, Pakistan’s foreign policy is anchored around the following seven strategic pillars

Pakistan Foreign Policy: Seven Strategic Pillars

  1. Pakistan-India Relations: Strategic Rivalry
  2. Pakistan-China Relations: Strategic Friendship
  3. Pakistan- America Relations: Strategic Balance
  4. Pakistan-Russia Relations: Strategic Neutrality
  5. Pakistan-Iran Relations: Strategic Restraint
  6. Pakistan-Afghanistan Relations: Strategic Depth
  7. Pakistan-Saudi Arabia Relations: Strategic Cordiality

Let me explain them in a bit of detail

A. Strategic Rivalry with India

The rivalry between India and Pakistan, like one existing between Israel and the Arabs/Palestinians, is the most enduring rivalry of the post-World War era leading to intractable positions taken by their respective policy-making elites on every issue confronting them. Kashmir, an unfinished agenda of history, is one reflection of this strategic rivalry; its solution would lessen the animosity between the two countries but would not eliminate it because it owes its genesis and continuation to four factors

  1. Blood-soaked Partition: Although the present generation of policymakers did not witness the partition which triggered a huge and violent mass migration resulting in the death of more than a million people, the trauma and legacy of this event live on today as a collective memory of the people in India and Pakistan. Just like the Holocaust, the 1947 massacre of the Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims are painfully branded onto their respective narratives. Ayesha Jalal has rightly pointed out that” A defining moment that is neither beginning nor end, the partition continues to influence how the peoples and states of postcolonial South Asia envisage their past, present and future.”
  2. Two Opposing Philosophies of Ruling Elites: Pakistan owes its creation to the Two-nation Theory based on Islam’s exclusiveness. On the other hand, India although constitutionally secular, is dominated by Hinduata philosophy which also believes in exclusivity. This clash of two philosophies based on the exclusivity of two opposite philosophies of life is unfortunately so ingrained in the statecraft of both countries that it has made cooperation almost irreconcilable.
  3. Regional Hegemony vs Existential Threat: At the practical level, this strategic rivalry between India and Pakistan is deeply embedded with two contrasting aims. Indian leadership is obsessed with playing a larger life role in global politics for which taming the neighbours is considered necessary. On the other hand, Pakistan’s strategic culture revolves around this fear of preserving its territorial integrity not only from external aggression but also from internal subversion, both emanating from India. And it is not difficult to understand Pakistan’s obsession with this existential threat if we keep in mind the size of the Indian economy and its military might.
  4. Pakistan’s Resilience against all Odds: Here is another paradox which also explains the roots of this strategic rivalry between the two Sub-continental neighbours. Unlike other South Asian countries that have accepted the Indian hegemony, Pakistan, despite India’s superiority in terms of economic strength and military power, looks eyeball to eyeball to India thanks to its geostrategic location, convenient alliances, and possession of nuclear weapons

One cannot rule out the intensification of this strategic rivalry in the foreseeable future between the two countries due to the following developments

  1. Modi-inspired anti-Pakistan hatred in India: Before coming into power in India of Narendra Modi, Indian leaders tried to maintain cordial relations between the two countries. After he came into power, all the good work done in this respect, particularly by Man Mohan Singh, was rolled back. India is now obsessed with extreme hatred for Pakistan; even, though they are not willing to engage in any sporting competition.
  2. Balakot fiasco/skirmishes with China: Recent skirmishes with China have left India badly bruised; to assuage its ego, Modi and the military junta in India are seeking an opportunity to wage a short but quick war with Pakistan. It would also compensate them for their loss of face in the Balakot fiasco.
  3. Contentious issues: There are three issues namely CPEC, Kashmir, and terrorism which are currently souring their bilateral relations. While Kashmir has been a long-standing bone of contention between the two countries, the construction of Chinese-funded CPEC has added fuel to the fire of this mutual animosity. While for Pakistan, the CPEC is a game-changer, catapulting Pakistan into a pivotal state, India regards it as a hindrance to its ambitions of regional hegemony and economic domination. Similarly, both countries accuse each other of sponsoring terrorism in their respective countries.
  4. Failure of the Indo-American project in Afghanistan: With the American exit from Afghanistan, India has also suffered its biggest defeat in recent history as all its investments in Afghanistan to use it as a base against Pakistan have come to nought.
  5. Cold War 2: Last but not least reason for this strategic rivalry between India and Pakistan to continue in near future is the start of the Cold War-2 i.e., efforts of the USA to contain China to maintain the economic and military differential between the USA and China. In this ensuing War, India is now openly siding with the USA while Pakistan is trying its best to avoid being seen as a party to either of the two.

Pakistan should try to lessen tension but should keep what Stephen P. Cohen in his book “Shooting for a Century” says about the India-Pakistan rivalry. According to him, this rivalry is likely to endure for several more decades even to 2047, a century.

“It’s futile even to imagine the end of this rivalry. The India-Pakistan rivalry has not only regional and global manifestation, it is not just about peace in South Asia, but is intrinsically linked to the global struggle against terror and violent extremism that has its roots here.”

B. Strategic Friendship with China

Pakistan’s historically trouble-free strategic friendship with China, based on the convergence of mutual interests more than any other reason, is pivotal to Pakistan’s foreign policy. Similarly, Pakistan which China has designated as its Iron Friend occupies a special place in the geostrategic calculations of the Chinese leadership. Based on the convergence of mutual interests, this strategic friendship has four solid foundations

  1. Pakistan’s geo-strategic location: It has special significance for China. Pakistan’s proximity to Central Asia, and its bordering the Indian Ocean from where 60% of ships carrying goods to and from different countries pass, makes it even more significant. Similarly, it is the outer border of the Middle East where the USA and its allies are fighting for resources, markets and hegemony. Because of its above-mentioned extremely important geostrategic location, Pakistan has become a critical link in China’s ‘One Belt, One Road initiative(BRI). The flagship of BRI namely the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC) has a huge geopolitical significance, providing a vital link for China to reach the Indian Ocean through the shortest possible route.
  2. Pakistan-India Rivalry: As stated above, the rivalry between India and Pakistan, is strategic that has endured for more than seven decades due to fundamental structural differences between the two countries. Consequently, both countries are relying on two superpowers to safeguard their respective national interest. While India is moving closer to the USA, Pakistan is aligning itself with China.
  3. China-India Rivalry: Just like the India-Pakistan rivalry, the one between India and China is also strategic. India considers the Subcontinent as its sphere of influence while China considers it as its backwater. India, therefore, intends to block Chines access to the Indian Ocean through Pakistan-hence the Indian hostility to CPEC which will provide that access.
  4. India-USA Strategic Partnership: Both, the USA and India, are opposing any project under the Chinese One Belt, One Road Plan, particularly CPEC. The recent surge in Indian hostility towards Pakistan and its opposition to China’s Pakistan Economic Corridor should be seen in this rapidly evolving geopolitical realignment. That’s why Pakistan has become even more important to China than before. If Pakistan capitulates to India’s hegemonic designs, New Delhi’s military capabilities will be increasingly deployed against China.

Although the multi-dimensional cooperation between these two countries has a long history, the new geopolitical developments have brought them even closer. These are strategic, long term and comprehensive as both countries are dependent on each other in multiple fields. Pakistan needs China for the following reasons

  1. Trade & Investment: Like any other country Pakistan is keen to enhance its trade and investment relations with the second-biggest economy in the world
  2. Defence Cooperation: China is the only reliable source of conventional and non-conventional defence equipment for the armed forces of Pakistan. It has not only helped Pakistan in augmenting its ingenious defence industry but also helped in its nuclear and missile technology
  3. Transfer of Technology: China is fast catching up with the USA and other advanced countries in acquiring emerging technologies. Pakistan being its long-term partner expects that China would be sharing and transferring this technology
  4. Diplomatic Support: China has always supported Pakistan in the past at all global forums, even at the cost of its reputation
  5. Economic Bailout: Whenever Pakistan is in financial trouble, and it usually is, it is Saudi Arabia and China which have bailed it out
  6. Existential Threat: Last but not least, it is China’s support which has enabled Pakistan to ward off the existential threat it faces from its 11-time bigger enemy having hegemonic designs.

At the same time, China needs Pakistan for the following reasons

  1. Access to the Indian Ocean: With its ambitions to be the superpower of the day, China needs to have a blue ocean navy for which it desperately needs easy access to the Indian Ocean. Although Gawadar is being developed as a commercial port by China, its use as a military base for the Chinese navy cannot be ruled out.
  2. Counterpoise to India: Keeping in view the strategic rivalry between China and India for regional domination, China needs a strong country like Pakistan to cover its flanks in case this rivalry turns violent
  3. Trade Route: China is a vast country; its southern part needs an easy and short route to reach the middle eastern markets. CPEC is the answer.
  4. Terrorism: China is grappling with foreign-sponsored extremism and terrorism in its Sinkiang region. It, therefore, needs Pakistan to ensure that terrorists do not have safe havens near its borders
  5. Trade & Investment: Pakistan is the 6th most populous and 26th most prosperous country in the world. Its growing prosperity is fuelling demand for consumer goods and services, an area in which China excels.

It is because of these interdependencies of both countries that the Chinese officials openly say that Pakistan is as dear to us as Israel is to the USA

What Pakistan should do?

Pakistan’s historically trouble-free strategic friendship with China, based on the convergence of mutual interests more than any other reason, is pivotal to Pakistan’s foreign policy. However, despite all the deepening & broadening of our relations with China, we must remember that China is the future superpower having a global agenda; hence its relations with a country will depend upon its own sets of priorities for the realisation of its national interest.

As such Pakistan should not take Chinese friendship for granted & do its best to align its national interest wherever possible with that of the national interest of China. And most importantly, set our own house in order-economic growth, democratic development, terrorism control

C. Strategic Neutrality with Russia

Relations between Russia and Pakistan have always been very complex, occasionally cordial but mostly hostile during the last seven decades. Although these relations have improved a lot due to changing geopolitical environment, Chinese efforts, and American attitude, they can never be as intense as they are between China and Pakistan, or even between Pakistan and the USA due to certain historical legacies.

Pakistan’s alignment with the West during the Cold War was at the cost of its relations with the former USSR besides compromising Pakistan’s independent foreign policy. USSR not only extended support to India on the Kashmir dispute but also supported Afghanistan’s irredentist claims on Pakistani territory.

With this heavy baggage of history, all that Pakistan can expect and should strive for is strategic neutrality from Russia to act as an honest broker between India and Pakistan on the one hand and between Pakistan and Afghanistan on the other. The same strategic neutrality that Russia’s predecessor, the USSR maintained during the Rann of Kutch war between Pakistan and India in April 1965 as well as the one maintained by the USSR during the Pakistan-India September 1965 war.

“Out of all declassified Soviet archives related to military intervention in Afghanistan, there are only a few that even mention Pakistan. Those that do, talk about the need for talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan. None mention “push towards warm waters”

https://dawn.com/2011/03/12/a-r

There are bright prospects of such strategic neutrality between the two countries because of the complementarity of grand strategies of both countries, converging in the identity of views on Afghanistan, geoeconomic connectivity, and regional peace. However, it’s a tightrope walk for Pakistan as too much warmth in the relationship between the two could attract the American ire or may stoke Chinese sensitivities. The fear of losing a huge Indian market would also be an obstacle for Russia to come too closer to Pakistan.

D. Strategic Balance with the USA

“To be an enemy of America can be dangerous, but to be its friend is fatal” ~ Henry Kissinger

Bilateral relations between the USA and Pakistan have always been very complex, and unstable changing with the changing geopolitical environment and the requirements of the USA’s foreign policy in this part of the world. Both countries have been playing a balancing game, keeping their mutual interaction at the tactical and not strategic level. A brief recap of the history of bilateral relations between the USA and Pakistan is enough to indicate how both countries have been playing a balancing game during the last seven decades

USA-Pakistan partnership from 1954 to 1962 was a marriage of convenience between the two for safeguarding their respective national interests. Pakistan needed economic assistance and military equipment and approached the USA which was looking for allies and bases in South Asia to contain communism. Both benefitted from this partnership.

When the USA abandoned Pakistan and started arming India in the aftermath of the 1962 India-China War, Pakistan befriended China and even sent friendly overtures to USSR. During the 80s, it was the other way round; it was the USA that wanted friendship with Pakistan to bleed the USSR in the killing fields of Afghanistan to take revenge for its defeat in Vietnam.

The third time Pakistan was forced to cooperate with the USA was by threatening it to be “bombed to the stone age” when the USA invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Pakistan had no choice but it tried to make the best out of the bad bargain. However, relations got soured between the two when both accused each other of not taking care of their core interests while pursuing their respective policies in Afghanistan.

The present bonhomie between Pakistan and America which started in 2018, is the result of American President Trump’s desperate attempt to extricate American forces from Afghanistan before his election campaign got going and needed Pakistan to bail it out of this quagmire.

The USA is mindful of the geostrategic importance of Pakistan for the furtherance or hindrance of its foreign policy goals in this volatile region. It is therefore ensuring that Pakistan’s estrangement on account of cosy relations between the USA and India doesn’t cross the threshold of its becoming a total satellite state of China.

On the other hand, Pakistan, mindful of America’s pre-eminence in global politics, would never try to antagonise it while trying to get maximum benefits from its good relations with the USA. After all, the USA and its allies are Pakistan’s largest trade partner, technology source, biggest aid donor plus hosts of the large Pakistani diaspora.

What Pakistan should do?

Pakistan should forget that it could have a similar strategic partnership it has with China and try to get maximum benefits till America needs us by maintaining a strategic balance in its relations with the USA.

It should try to maintain a strategic balance in its relations with the USA by ensuring that the genuine interests of the USA such as containing terrorism, safe exit from Afghanistan, nuclear safety guarantees etc are properly taken care of. However, Pakistan must ensure that while doing so, its core interests- CPEC, Kashmir, Nuclear deterrence, and warding off Indian hegemony, are safeguarded.

E. Strategic Restraint with Iran

Although Pakistan is one of the few countries where a fairly high proportion of the population views Iran positively, it is really unfortunate that the relations between these two neighbouring countries are not as cordial as they should have been. Their relationship is often viewed from the lenses of our relations with Saudi Arabia, the USA, and India.

No doubt, Pakistan-Iran relations remained extremely cordial till 1979, they started deteriorating after the fall of the Shah of Iran due to certain developments in both countries as well as the rapidly changing external environment. While in Iran, the new Islamic regime enforced a strict Shia version of Islam, in Pakistan, a military dictator started the Islamisation of the country by promoting the Sunni version of Islam.

These two diametrically opposite developments in the two countries created a lot of distrust and provided space for external forces to exploit it for their vested interests. However, despite the immense pressure from the Arab countries, Pakistan remained neutral during the decade-long Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and did not create any trouble for Iran.

One of the reasons for this mutual acrimony between the two countries is the accusations of sponsoring terrorism in both countries. Iran blames Pakistan for providing safe havens to Anti-Iran Jandullh while Pakistan accuses Iran of sponsoring anti-Pakistan terrorist organisations. It has given rise to Strategic restraint-despite these accusations, both countries try to maintain cordial relations by using fire-fighting tactics on a need basis. Pakistan does not want to open a third front while Iran cannot afford to antagonise Pakistan where it sees a lot of potential for economic cooperation when the American sanctions are lifted.

For Pakistan, Iran is an uncomfortable neighbour which can create trouble for Pakistan and has been doing so; the arrest of Kulbhoshan, the Indian spymaster from Baluchistan was just one such proof. Pakistan has therefore always tried to adopt a policy of strategic restraint despite clear proof of Iran’s involvement in terrorist acts within Pakistan.

F. Strategic Depth on Western Borders

The term Strategic Depth about Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan has been one of the most misunderstood and unnecessarily ridiculed concepts among IR analysts. This concept was borrowed from WW2 when the French Resistance, having lost critical space within France after its occupation by the German army, took refuge in other spaces, particularly the UK, and continued war-fighting thereon from elsewhere.

However, its application as a war doctrine by Pakistan has never been established. As General Tariq argues,

“it is Pakistan that has provided strategic depth to Afghanistan. First by providing bases to resistance forces against the Soviets, then to accommodate millions of Refugees and then by providing strategic connectivity to Afghanistan with ports and world trade. What has Afghanistan ever provided Pakistan?”

Yes, there is strategic depth in the political sense which implies Pakistan’s desperate need to have a stable, friendly Afghanistan to avoid fighting a two-front war i.e., with India on its eastern border and with Afghanistan on its western border. Pakistan is now willing to have a neutral, if not a friendly regime in Afghanistan.

This Strategic Depth will not only allay Pakistan’s fear of fighting on two fronts but more importantly, it will help reduce the threat posed by the sub-nationalist insurgents having safe havens in a troubled Afghanistan

And this quest for Pakistan to have a Strategic depth on its western borders in the form of a friendly regime in a peaceful Afghanistan is not only beneficial for Pakistan to become a geo-economic power, but it will also open up new avenues for investments and markets for a landlocked Afghanistan. Besides helping Afghanistan to become an energy corridor, it will open vast opportunities for Afghanistan to fully capitalize on the opportunities that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) provides to Islamabad & the region.

G. Strategic Cordiality with Saudi Arabia

If strategic friendship with China is the cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy, then strategic cardinality between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia is the anchor of this policy. Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal once described ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as “probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries without any official treaty.” According to a Pew Research Centre survey, Pakistanis hold the most favourable perception of Saudi Arabians in the world, with 9 of 10 respondents viewing Saudi Arabia favourably

They cannot afford to alienate each other because of their multiple interdependencies. While Pakistan confidently depends on Saudi Arabia to bail her out whenever in economic distress, there is strong security and defence cooperation between the two countries. Saudi Arabia secretly funded Pakistan’s atomic bomb programme.; that’s why, in May 1998, Saudi Arabia was the only country that was taken in complete confidence by Prime minister Nawaz Sharif on Pakistan’s decision on performing atomic tests. Saudi Arabia not only backed Pakistan and congratulated the country for making the “bold decision” but also promised to supply 50,000 barrels per day of free oil to help Pakistan cope with likely economic sanctions in the aftermath.

Based on the principles of non-interference and cooperation, this Strategic cordiality has ensured that despite deep economic and military cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan since the 1960s, Pakistan has always endeavoured that its relations with Iran, the arch-rival of Saudi Arabia, are never adversely influenced by the mutual animosity existing between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has always assured Saudi Arabia that our close relations with Iran should be construed as a bridge not a gulf between Iran & the Arab world. Similarly, Pakistan has never pressurised Saudi Arabia in any way in the latter’s relationship with India, our arch-rival. Saudi Aramco is implementing plans to invest in a $70 billion oil refinery in India under a joint venture. Pakistan knows and accepts the reality that Saudis attach equal importance to both countries and will not unilaterally pressure India on Kashmir.

Conclusion

Assessing whether Pakistan’s foreign policy has been successful in the realisation of goals and objectives determined under different components of national interest, is an extremely difficult exercise. Its honest appraisal would lead one to conclude that it is a mixed bag containing some stellar successes and also dismal failures.

However, we must admit that despite its several handicaps, Pakistan has not done badly in pursuing the objectives of its national interest. It has successfully en-cashed its geostrategic location about which Stephen Cohen rightly observed that history might not have been kind to Pakistan, but it is fortunate to have such an important geographical location.

Dexterously using its geostrategic location as a lever, Pakistan has not only successfully responded to the existential threat it had been facing since independence but has also managed to maintain a reasonable balance of power against a hegemonic India. Exploiting the opportunities available during the Cold war, it became a nuclear power, developed its economy, and has been successful in cultivating friendly relations with all three global powers after the end of the Cold War.

Looking towards the future, although our objectives will remain almost the same as mentioned above, there will be greater emphasis on geo-economic thrust. Pakistan’s new security framework articulated in Islamabad Security Dialogue is heavily tilted toward geo-economics as its cornerstone. For this, regional peace particularly stability in Afghanistan is critical to realise Pakistan’s geo-economic ambitions through connectivity. Similarly, we will have to maintain a strategic balance in our relations with all three superpowers by roping them into CPEC-style initiatives

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