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Pakistan and India have just stepped back from the brink of an all-out war; Prime Minister Imran Khan has passed his first big foreign policy test after six months in office. Behind the scenes, however, he was helped by Pakistan’s military, who had set the scene for the country’s regional diplomacy, and the efforts go back almost two years, as indicated by Pakistan Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s speech at RUSI in 2017.
Bajwa made overtures to India well before Imran Khan’s election, and set about fixing what was seen as a ‘black hole’ in Pakistan’s foreign diplomacy, given the absence of a foreign minister for four years in the previous government. Prior to Khan coming into power in August 2018, Bajwa had also set things right with key allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). And, most significantly, Bajwa moved quickly to reassure China of Islamabad’s unwavering commitment to the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) relationship after a less than certain start by the Khan government’s commitment to Beijing. This includes the potentially contentious involvement of Saudi Arabia given tensions with Iran on the border as well as remarks by Khan’s ministers about renegotiating certain CPEC projects.
That the Beijing–Islamabad axis would ever be in doubt was itself remarkable given its importance to Pakistan. Still, that danger existed, and the uncertainty was removed: during General Bajwa’s September three-day China visit, Zhang Youxia, the deputy chairman of China’s powerful Central Military Commission, said that ‘military ties are an important backbone of relations between the two countries’.
Confusion Over CPEC
The viability of CPEC and its implementation were always going to be a cause for concern, given the fraught civil–military tensions in Pakistan. Further to this, the provincial versus federal governance debate which has for decades plagued Pakistan was also at display with different parts of the country accusing each other of nepotism and ethnic bias. There was also a major question mark about the corruption taking place with regards to CPEC projects and how Pakistan would overcome China’s fears about delivering on pre-agreed projects on time.
Then, there were concerns that the newly elected prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, was somehow sceptical of CPEC; it was four years ago that his protests paralysed Islamabad and delayed the historic visit of China’s President Xi Jinping. China had earlier this year also publicly moved to address the issue of Pakistan taking the CPEC for granted; Beijing made it clear that the CPEC was not a gift, but a project which needed to be earned. Things came to a head when Imran Khan’s key economic adviser, in an interview with the Financial Times, said that some of the CPEC projects needed a second look and renewed negotiations. In another interview with Nikkei Asian Review, Khan’s key advisers said that there would need to be diversity in investments. China publicly came out criticising the article and challenged its narrative.
And there were other subtle indications that not all was well: as Imran Khan took office in August it was widely expected that his first official visit – like that of all Pakistani leaders – would be to Beijing, but instead Khan visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE, twice each before making his way to China. The prime minister’s place was taken by Bajwa, who travelled to Beijing whilst Khan was in the Gulf. Bajwa and the Pakistan Army have now set things right and restored what many would say is the real trajectory of the Pakistan–China relationship: a military and defence-orientated axis where all other factors are secondary. Bajwa’s recent trip has clarified the position. China’s announcement reemphasised what was known to long-term observers: that the Pakistan–China relationship is all about military geopolitics, fighter jets, nuclear warheads and a joint alliance to counter an American-led hegemony of South and Central Asia.
It was Always About the Military
Similarly on the Middle Eastern front, Bajwa made the rounds throughout 2018 to further bolster ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. While previously it could be argued that Pakistan could take sides in the Middle East, under Bajwa’s leadership the Pakistan Army steered clear of the current political crisis which divides the Gulf. While giving full support to safeguard Saudi sovereignty, Pakistan also committed to helping Qatar by providing the all-important security for the 2022 football World Cup, which Qatar will be hosting. The Qataris and Pakistanis also stepped up support for the Afghan regional dialogue. And while strengthening ties with all the Gulf countries, Bajwa also became the first Pakistan Army chief to make an official trip to Tehran in two decades, laying the groundwork for better relations with Iran.
In one of his first major speeches as prime minister, Imran Khan emphasised the fact that the civil and military leadership were now on the same page. This has helped guide the country’s foreign policy, which has lacked strategic direction for almost a decade. The historic visits of the Saudi and UAE crown princes took Bajwa’s work further as Khan took over the mantle of fixing Pakistan’s financial woes through economic diplomacy.
So as the dust begins to settle on the India–Pakistan skirmish and the Taliban peace talks reach a key moment in Doha, the Pakistan Army and Khan may have managed to convince not only the Chinese, but also the Americans, Saudis, Qataris and even the Indians that Pakistan has a new regional diplomacy at play.
Kamal Alam is a Visiting Fellow at RUSI. He specialises in the defence diplomacy of the Pakistani army, with a focus on its relationship with the Arab states, Turkey and Iran.
BANNER IMAGE: Qamar Javed Bajwa at the Munich Security Conference, 2018. Courtesy of Barth/MSC/Wikimedia Commons
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.