Neo-Bilateralism: A perspective on Pakistan’s foreign policy

The writer analyzes Pakistan’s narrative and its foreign policy option with regard to China and the US. The writer also discusses the concept of bilateralism to explore alternative approaches for Pakistan’s security and foreign policy.

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Pakistan has long remained under the radars of the great powers as a courtesy of her geostrategic and geopolitical significance. Since its inception, Pakistan has been swayed by the policy meddling of the external powers which kept on intensifying with the passing time.

Pakistan’s foreign, national, security, economic and diplomatic interests and ultimately their associated policies had for the most part been crafted in line with the interests of these power centres. Accordingly, Pakistan’s foreign policy followed an uneven trajectory right from the very independence and still remains somewhat similar.

The turbulent foreign policy of Pakistan reflects the policy failures that have come with a great cost. Pakistan became the victim of terrorism and extremism with the loss of lives of combatants and civilians alike. It has been labelled as a sponsor of terrorism and put on the FATF grey list. Pakistan was clamped with economic sanctions that added fuel to the fire of the country’s already ailing economy.

Read more: Pakistan stays in grey list by FATF; plenary appreciates its hard work

Historical oversight

Pakistan-being situated at one of the critical junctures of the global power chessboard has never recognized her true potential. Rather she has always fallen prey to the giants pursuing their interests at the cost of Pakistan’s national interests, her security and territorial integrity. Nevertheless, Pakistan has also done its bit to worsen the situation.

Pakistan’s reliance on the Western bloc and signing of mutual defence agreements with the US (SEATO and CENTO) though might be the need of the hour as per some scholars, ultimately resulted in the dismemberment of the country as the US failed to fulfil the commitment of foreign aid assistance.

Read more: A bill put forward in US congress to remove Pakistan as ally

It did not end here and Pakistan once again stood up to provide her services for containing the USSR in Afghanistan, a major policy short sidedness that had wretched the entire socio-politico-security fibre of the country.

Pakistan has suffered a lot by jingoistic approaches of the Western bloc it preferred to choose. Though it had at some instances provided Pakistan with financial and military aid but a glimpse at the larger picture suggests that Pakistan’s aptitude had been seriously impeded during this entire period of external power’s dominance in Pakistan’s foreign and security policy.

It had not only pushed Pakistan to the brink of internal chaos, rather made it what is usually referred to as a security state. Perceived threats from both eastern and western borders kept Pakistan’s policies overshadowed by the security concerns. Consequently, the economic progress curtailed, the institutions failed to deliver and nation-building had been left out in the cold.

Read more: Pakistan’s foreign policy in tough spot: Who to choose, Iran or US?

Bilateralism in the context of contemporary geopolitics

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s concept of bilateralism was a major breakthrough in the history of Pakistan’s foreign relations. During the cold war, it opened greater avenues for Pakistan’s foreign policy.

His policy authorized independent and equal relations with both the powers and non-interference from any external power. The thought behind such policy was none other than unchaining Pakistan’s foreign policy that had been previously linked with the interests of the alliance system rather than her national interests.

Bhutto’s bilateralism came at the time when Pakistan had already been stabbed at back by its so-called security guarantor and had paid a price for aligning her interests with one bloc. Henceforth, it was the need of an hour to realign Pakistan’s foreign policy on equal footing with the major powers as well as with the rest of the world.

Read more: Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto: A Challenge to Status Quo

In a current geopolitical scenario-escalating US-China strategic competition, Pakistan again stands at the brink of chaos.

The US is sceptical of the China-Pakistan strategic alliance as a counter to US hegemony in the region and wants Pakistan to explicate her intentions. China, at the same time, has also been courting Pakistan. These concerns apart, Pakistani authorities have time and again reiterated abstaining from any such actions that would come at the cost of Pakistan’s national interests. Moeed Yousuf stressed:

“We are not in the business of picking sides.”
Pakistan’s national, economic, security and diplomatic interests are not just aligned to either China or the US, rather they are entangled with both powers. Pakistan cannot afford to let go of any of the sides and need to strike balancing relations with the two. According to Michael Kugelman:

Pakistan needs a deep alliance with China while maintaining workable relations with the US to allow for a degree of commercial cooperation with.”
Read more: China & Pakistan: Evolution of a Strategic Relationship that created CPEC and threatens India & the US

Prioritizing national interests

No one can be blamed for our personal incompetence and policy failures. It’s high time for Pakistan to calibrate its foreign relations by prioritizing its national interests. Pakistan has to consider both the options simultaneously as it cannot afford to upset either China or the US.

U.S. and Pakistan have witnessed many ebbs and flows in their relations. Despite all the prejudices, both the states had and continue to have mutual interests in numerous sectors. Pakistan had helped the US in achieving its interests by serving as a client state.

Subsequently, the US had been pouring billion dollars aid for Pakistan be it in the financial domain, developmental projects, exchange programs, military training, institution building or counter-terrorism efforts.

Read more: USAID aims at boosting sales of Pakistani Agritech companies

The changing geostrategic landscape reflects the probability of ensuing cooperation once again on issues like Afghan Peace Talks, FATF specifically and counter-terrorism, peace and stability efforts generally. As the US intends to withdraw from Afghanistan sooner or later, it is a great opportunity for Pakistan as no state other than Pakistan can help the US during this time.

Furthermore, it lies in the greater interests of Pakistan to have a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan that would ultimately assure a secure western border. Pakistan can avail this opportunity to get its counter-terrorism efforts recognized by the world generally and by the US specifically. This could ultimately translate into the revision of the FATF decision of keeping Pakistan on the grey list.

China, on the other hand, has been one of the largest trading partners of Pakistan. Both the states have been collaborating in areas including economic development, defence and security.

Similarly, under BRI’s flagship project CPEC; China has also brought huge investment in terms of infrastructural development, jobs and economic uplift for Pakistan. China has been a reliable ally of Pakistan which it has demonstrated frequently.

Read more: Celebrating 70 Years of Pakistan-China Friendship

The growing strategic partnership of both allies is evident from joint ventures in the fields of business, defence, economics, trade, maritime, industries etc. In the words of Prime Minister Imran khan:

Our economic future is now linked to China. China is growing at a faster pace than probably any other country. Pakistan can really benefit from the way China has developed.



Henceforth, Pakistan needs to learn from the mistakes of the past and try not to repeat them. If Pakistan became successful in striking a balance between both the powers, it would be an assurance for a stable and prosperous Pakistan.

Pakistan needs both the US and China

Marked by the recurrence of political, social, diplomatic and economic turmoil, Pakistan now is faced with another challenge crucial to its stability. If dealt with shrewdness, it can offer a road of opportunities.

Pakistan cannot afford to choose the path it had chosen in the past as it would lead towards an endless route of suffering and chaos. This is the critical foreign policy decision that would craft the future security and strategic dynamics of Pakistan.

It is the need of an hour to devise a comprehensive policy where the national security policy, foreign policy, and Pakistan’s official narrative need to be in line with the country’s core strategic interests. Pakistan can reap the benefits of taking both the US and China side by side in light of prioritizing its vital interests.

Madina Ali Zamani is a graduate of Strategic Studies from National Defense University. She has previously interned in ISSI, MOD and currently pursuing an internship at ISSRA. Her areas of interests include International Relations, Contemporary Security Studies, Nuclear Strategy, Psychological Warfare and Geopolitics. She can be reached at madinaalizamani@gmail.com

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