Ambassador Munir Akram: Pakistan’s Foreign Policy – Emerging Challenges and Opportunities

Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations, Ambassador Munir Akram, analyzes Pakistan’s challenges and way ahead in the next decade. The international order is evolving, and the deepening US-India relations to counter China helps to bring greater strategic clarity for Pakistan.


Pakistan’s Legacy Challenges

Pakistan’s current major external challenges – Kashmir, Indian hostility, Afghanistan, terrorism, economic vulnerability – are largely the products of history. The historical analysis will reveal the major and minor strategic and tactical mistakes which either created or exacerbated these challenges or missed the opportunities to overcome them. There is little benefit in decrying or denouncing these – except as lessons for the future.

What is important to acknowledge is that while Pakistan’s external challenges are “local”, impacting our security and society, the root causes of these challenges, are geopolitical. This is obvious in the case of Afghanistan but, as a historical review will show, also for Kashmir. In the coming decade, these and Pakistan’s other economic and political challenges will be even more intensively intertwined with global politics and great power rivalry.

The New Cold War

A new “Cold War” has opened between the U.S. and China, in parallel with ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Russia. The U.S. has stepped firmly into the “Thucydides trap” which prognosticates the inevitability of conflict between an established and a rising power. This “Cold War” is unlike the one between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It spans all domains: trade, technology, military, diplomacy. It is centered in what the US calls “the Indo-Pacific,” but is likely to extend to Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe and Latin America. It will be played out at multiple levels and in every international forum.

Read more: Where is Pakistan going to be standing on the foreign policy front in the next decade – Dr. Zafar Jaspal

The U.S. is promoting the Quad (Australia, India, Japan and the US) as its Indo-Pacific alliance. It will seek to incorporate others – South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines – into a ring of allies around China’s periphery. America’s NATO allies were pushed away by Trump but are now eager to align with the Biden Administration. France and the U.K. have initiated “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea. The EU is in the vanguard of criticism of China’s alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.

Most major European countries have accepted US demands to boycott Huawei and other Chinese technology companies. The U.S. still controls the “dollarized” world economy and is in a position to impose financial sanctions on adversaries and to reward its friends. Even Chinese and Russian entities and companies are subjected to and try to avoid, the financial constraints unilaterally and frequently as imposed by the US for a variety of alleged transgressions.

China has no military alliance. It has “strategic partnerships” with Russia and Pakistan. It has close political ties with North Korea, Laos and Cambodia in Asia and some other States further afield: Venezuela, Syria, Cuba, Nicaragua. It has enjoyed considerable influence with a number of African states although the West is busy trying to erode this influence by exploiting the debt difficulties African countries face in the aftermath of the Covid crisis.

Read more: Amb Salman Bashir on Pakistan’s foreign policy in the next decade

Yet, China enjoys several geostrategic and economic advantages. With Russia, China controls the Eurasian landmass where Western strategic inroads will be difficult. Despite their naval superiority, the US and its allies cannot wrest control of the South China Sea islands short of war. The outcome of such military action would be highly uncertain, given China’s growing naval, missile and electronic warfare capabilities. This could also provide Beijing with the justification to take over Taiwan.

China’s economy has revived from the COVID crisis and is projected to grow at 6-7% annually, whereas the U.S. and European economies will contract by 5-7% and recover more slowly. Almost every U.S. “ally” in Asia, including Japan, India and Australia, has China as its primary economic partner. China thus has huge potential for pushback against America’s Asian “allies”. Australia is already being “punished” by trade boycotts and restrictions. Japan, while building its military and participating in the Quad, has maintained its trade relations with China. Both Australia and Japan have joined the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade bloc (as have the ASEAN bloc).


India, however, seems to have been taken in by its own rhetoric and presumed prematurely that it was already a great power and China’s geopolitical rival. India refused to endorse China’s BRI and sought to subvert CPEC; revived claims to Aksai Chin; unilaterally changed the status of Jammu and Kashmir, including Ladakh, and declared an alliance with the U.S. China’s action in Ladakh, and its firm stance in the subsequent talks with India, were, most likely, meant to demonstrate that the Sino-Indian power-equation was not “equal” and that, in any confrontation with China, India was highly vulnerable.

Pakistan’s Strategic Clarity

Throughout the past several decades, Pakistan has sought to maintain close relations with both China and the U.S. However, the post 9/11 US-Pakistan partnership in the “war on terror” deteriorated progressively as the U.S. bogged down in Afghanistan and placed the blame for its failure on Pakistan’s “duplicity” and alleged support to the Taliban.

Read more: Pakistan Strategic Opportunities & Challenges to 2030: Gen Amjad Shoaib

In parallel, the U.S. “strategic partnership” with India became increasingly stronger, progressing from Bush’s de-hyphenation of America’s relations with India and Pakistan in 2005, to President Obama’s endorsement of India’s role as a “counter” to China in his “pivot” to Asia; and finally, the Trump Administration’s declaration in 2017 of a “strategic partnership” with India against China. The “alliance” has strengthened further after the recent China-India confrontation in Ladakh. The U.S., its NATO allies and Israel have opened all the spigots of advanced weapons and technologies to India.

A number of agreements for defence supplies, technology transfer, and operational cooperation have been concluded including the recent BECA agreement which will enable India to access the US’ sophisticated guidance and targeting systems, enhancing India’s ability to launch precision strikes against enemy targets. On the other hand, Pakistan’s access to advanced weapons and technologies has been blocked by the U.S. and its allies through various discriminatory policies.

Washington has given little consideration to the impact of India’s weapons build up on Pakistan’s security. All of India’s new capabilities – on land, sea, air, space, cyberspace, and electronics – will be deployed and used principally against Pakistan. When push comes to shove, India is unlikely to fight China (as the Ladakh incident revealed); but it will utilize its military muscle to threaten Pakistan and dominate smaller neighbours in South Asia and beyond to advance its great power ambitions.

Read more: Khurram Dastgir Khan – The Pakistan he is striving for in the next Decade

Apart from military and technology support, the U.S. has helped India to delegitimize the Kashmiri freedom struggle by portraying it as terrorism. The Indian and U.S. campaign in the FATF is part of the “pressure regime” constructed against Pakistan. Under these conditions, Pakistan’s has no choice but to rely on China for military, economic and diplomatic support. It is only with the Chinese support that Pakistan will be able to preserve the credibility of its conventional and strategic deterrence against India.

The recent visit of China’s Defence Minister to Pakistan and the revival of CPEC are signals of the reinforced Pakistan-China relationship. China too appears to have gained greater strategic clarity regarding India. The Modi government’s posture appears to have convinced China that India has chosen to be its rival rather than a third world economic partner desirous of inducting equity in the US-dominated post World War II order (which was the working premise of the BRICS group and the Xi-Modi Wuhan Summit).

Kashmir and India

Modi’s move to annex Indian-occupied Jammu & Kashmir and eliminate its “autonomous” and special status has eliminated the political space within which a negotiated settlement had been explored in the past. India’s annexation is universally opposed by the Kashmiris. India will find it difficult to find an “internal” political solution, even with the pro-Indian Kashmiri leaders. The Hurriyet and the vast majority of Kashmiris are unwilling to settle for anything less than “Azadi,” i.e. freedom from Indian rule.

Read more: Pakistan calls upon UN to urge India to drop fabricated case against Kashmiri leader Asiya Andrabi

Although Pakistan is unable to materially support the indigenous Kashmiri freedom movement, militancy will inevitably intensify in occupied Kashmir, given the brutal and racist nature of the Indian occupation and its campaign to colonize occupied Kashmir with non- Kashmiri Hindu settlers. India will continue to blame Pakistan for its failure to normalize occupied Kashmir. Thus, hostility with India appears inevitable, at least until Modi reverses his Kashmir policy (which is highly unlikely) or is replaced by a government in New Delhi which is prepared to do so (which is also unlikely in the near future).

The pervasive India-Pakistan hostility entails an ever-present threat of conflict, by design or miscalculation. India’s Balakot “misadventure” may have been a “trailer” – in Mr Modi’s words – to a larger showdown. Pakistan’s effective response may have stayed New Delhi’s plans for wider aggression. Perhaps Modi will choose to act on the eve of major state or national elections and, like Pulwama, create the justification for such aggression through a “false flag” terrorist incident. In any event, Pakistan must be ready to respond to Indian aggression at any level.

It is hoped that India’s appetite for such aggression has been dampened by its border confrontation with China in Ladakh. India’s General Rawat has spoken about India’s capability to fight a “two-front” war (against Pakistan and China). This is pure braggadocio. India can never be certain that one front conflict will not turn into a disastrous two-front war.


Absent the option of a conventional attack against Pakistan, India will double down on its strategy to promote terrorism and subversion in Pakistan, in particular, to target the success of the CPEC, which is of strategic importance to both Pakistan and China. The recent intelligence Dossier circulated by Pakistan illustrates the breadth and scope of India’s “sub-conventional” war against Pakistan. The TTP and the JuA are terrorist entities, listed on the Security Council (terrorist) Sanctions Committee. India’s financing and weapons supply to these entities as revealed in the Dossier are grave violations of Security Council resolutions.

Read more: No military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan: PM Khan

They also contravene the terror financing conditions of the FATF. Similarly, the Indian sponsorship of the Baloch insurgent groups, and subversive activities in Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere in Pakistan, violate counter-terrorism resolutions of the Security Council and constitute gross violations of the UN Charter and international law. While exposing Indian terror activities in the Security Council and other relevant international forums, Pakistan also needs to highlight that India’s sponsorship of terrorism threatens the prospects of a comprehensive political settlement in Afghanistan.

Pakistan should expect support against India’s sponsorship of terrorism from all those who desire peace in Afghanistan and the region, especially the U.S. and its NATO allies, given their reliance on Pakistan to facilitate the Afghan peace process. India is working overtime to subvert the Afghan peace process because it would terminate its ability to wage its sub-conventional war against Pakistan from the territory of Afghanistan. It has encouraged some Afghan parties and others to actively impede the peace process and a political settlement in Afghanistan. The Afghan peace process is complex and difficult enough even without the role of “spoilers” like India.

Given the multiple “players” and factions within Afghanistan, the progress achieved so far: the US-Taliban Agreement, the commencement of the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha, and the recent accord on the “Rules and Procedures” is remarkable. Pakistan deserves and should receive considerable credit for this progress. This inter-Afghan peace process could be easily thrown off track if the parties do not live up to their respective commitments or if they insert new “conditionalities” for troop withdrawals and other elements of a settlement.

Read more: The politics behind ceasefire in Afghanistan

Pakistan will need to continue working with the US-Russia-China “Troika” and with Iran to advance the inter-Afghan negotiations. Hopefully, no new complications will be injected by either the new U.S. Administration or others. Spoilers, like India, will have to be kept at arm’s length in this process.

United States – A New Relationship?

Pakistan’s facilitation of the Afghan peace process was made possible by the personal rapport established between Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Trump and active support from Pakistan’s military and intelligence service. The measure of mutual trust developed with US counterparts needs to be preserved as Washington transitions to the Biden Administration.

Pakistan should expect, at the very least, that in light of its facilitation of the peace process, the U.S. will work to eliminate the terrorist threat to Pakistan from Afghanistan; help to remove Pakistan from the FATF “grey list”; and allow Islamabad adequate fiscal space – through debt relief and concessional finance – to recover from the COVID crisis and revive the Pakistani economy. Such steps could be the basis for a wider re-set of the Pakistan-U.S. relationship. The U.S. could re-assure Islamabad that the weapons and capabilities being supplied to India will not be used against Pakistan. Bilateral trade and investment could be actively promoted.

A New Geopolitical Paradigm]

While the policies of the Biden Administration are as yet unclear, there is a general expectation that it will be more supportive of multilateral approaches to address global and regional issues, such as climate change, global economic recovery, the Iran nuclear deal and the multiple Middle East conflicts.

Read more: Biden expected to pressurize India on human rights, while strengthening ties: Report

Success in each of these endeavours will entail U.S. cooperation and coordination with China. This could lead to lowering US-China and global tensions. In the same vein, Biden may be more open than Trump to agree to Chinese investment in Afghanistan and the latter’s inclusion in CPEC and other regional “connectivity” projects. This is, in fact, the only path to sustainable peace in Afghanistan and the region.

Pakistan’s New Image

During the past decade, Pakistani authorities appear to have succumbed to the Indian (echoed in the West) propaganda portraying Pakistan as a “sponsor” of terrorism or did not bother to counter it. This has changed only after the PTI assumed office. Besides countering the Indian propaganda onslaught and exposing the fascist nature of the BJP-RSS rulers in India, Pakistan also needs to project its successes and attractions. This requires well-coordinated and adequately funded media and public relations campaigns, especially in Western capitals. An effective campaign must not replicate India’s “fake news” and fraudulent propaganda but should be based on projecting the numerous positive realities and prospects in Pakistan.

Shaping the Regional Environment

The arrogant posture of the Modi government provides Pakistan and China with the opportunity to build a coalition of the smaller South Asian States which, with the exception of the Maldives, all have problems with New Delhi. Rebuilding a close relationship with Bangladesh is the most natural and important aim in changing the power balance in South Asia. It may require some bold gesture from Islamabad. Irrespective of Washington’s desire to focus attention on its strategic rivalry with China (and Russia), it will find it difficult to disengage rapidly from the Middle East.

Read more: Iran nuclear deal parties prepare for US return to accord

The Biden Administration’s desire to revive the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal) will involve it in addressing the Middle East conflicts – Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. If the Biden Administration is prepared to lift the Trump sanctions, Tehran will be prepared to engage and work out a deal despite protestations to the contrary. Saudi Arabia’s (and its Crown Prince’s) star mhay decline, but the U.S. will continue to retain its “special relationship” with Riyadh even as it deals with Iran.

The Saudis may then turn to China and Russia for political support, but their room for maneuver is limited. Saudi recognition of Israel may not yield any major US concessions under a Biden Administration, and the new Administration may no longer press Riyadh to recognize Israel. In any case, it would not be advisable for Pakistan to go down this route. The costs – domestic reaction and compromise of the principle of self-determination – would far outweigh any benefits. Israel will not terminate its close relationship with India.

The Biden Administration will not offer any tangible concession for recognition of Israel. In this evolving situation, the recent deterioration in Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia can be reversed. A closer and trouble-free relationship with Tehran is desirable. It should be forged on the basis of mutual advantage and a strategic understanding, i.e. non-interference in international affairs; a reversal of Iran’s collaboration with India; counter-terrorism cooperation, especially against Baluchi insurgent groups; and cooperation in stabilizing Afghanistan.

Emphasis on Economics

Pakistan’s future security and stability depends on achieving sustainable economic development. Macro-economic stability has been achieved. But to grow rapidly, in the aftermath of the COVID crisis, Pakistan needs to invest in the priority areas identified by the Government: agriculture, housing, manufacturing, and to expand exports. The IMF Managing Director has said developing countries should spend as much as they need to in order to keep their economies afloat. But, with its IMF Programme commitment to control the budget deficit, Pakistan has very limited fiscal space for stimulus spending.

Read more: Will the resumption of IMF program harm or help the economy?

Some fiscal space has been secured through the G-20’s debt suspension initiative and the “rapid” lending facilities established by the IMF and the World Bank. These support measures need to be vastly expanded. It will require deft diplomacy with Western official and commercial creditors, the IMF and multilateral development banks to secure this. Pakistan’s efforts to secure foreign direct investment also need to be systematically promoted. Without doubt, under current circumstances, the long-term infrastructure investment will come mostly from China.

It can also be a major source of shorter-term commercial investment, especially into the Special Economic Zones (SEZs). A concerted effort can be undertaken by the CPEC Authority, the Board of Investment and Pakistan’s private sector. A series of investment meetings in China focused on specific investment projects is one way of accelerating such investment. If Pakistan’s security and geopolitical environment improves, particularly in the aftermath of an Afghan peace agreement, foreign investment can also flow in from the West and the Gulf. Again, a conscious campaign would be essential to generate such investment flows.

Pakistan’s International Role

Finally, Pakistan – the fifth largest country by population – needs to step out confidently on to the world stage. At the United Nations, the critical tasks are, of course, to project and defend the Kashmir cause; to expose India’s anti-Pakistan agenda, including terrorism and fake news, and its human rights and other transgressions; to refute India’s moves against Pakistan on terrorism and other issues. As a major Islamic country, Pakistan must also defend Muslim peoples facing discrimination, repression and injustice, and oppose the noxious phenomena of Islamophobia. Due to its past passivity, economic underperformance and indifference to global issues, Pakistan was excluded from restricted elite forums such as the G-20, BRICs etc., whereas India has staked a claim to sit at the high table.

Read more: The rise of Hindutva is a threat to regional security, Pakistan tells OIC

Pakistan can and must catch-up. The United Nations and its agencies, where membership is universal, offers the best format for Pakistan to assume a leadership role on global issues. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s proposal for a Debt Relief Initiative was most timely and evoked widespread international support. Pakistan has since led UN discussions on the debt issue. Pakistan will be the largest beneficiary of the debt suspension agreed by the G-20 until June 2021. The Prime Minister’s proposals on the creation of new Special Drawing Rights and his 10-point agenda of priority actions for recovery from the COVID economic crisis are under active consideration.

His call for a halt in Illicit Financial Flows by criminals and corrupt politicians has been taken up by a specially constituted high-level panel which is to submit its report in early 2021. Pakistan has also assumed the one-year Presidency of the UN Economic and Social Council and is leading the way in addressing global economic and social challenges: the COVID crisis, Climate Change and implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Pakistan confronts multiple challenges – domestic and external. But it is fortunate in having the essential ingredients for success: honest and dedicated democratic governance and leadership – both civil and military – which is working in unison to achieve the vital national interests of the country and its people, especially the poor and deprived.

Ambassador Munir Akram is the Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations, with the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. He has a foreign service career spanning four decades, joining the elite cadre in 1967. Prior to that Ambassador Akram has held positions as Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Pakistan’s Additional Foreign Secretary, Ambassador to EU, Ambassador to UN’s Geneva office, he has specialized in multilateral diplomacy and has held positions in many intergovernmental organizations including UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament and President of the Security Council.

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