Can New Delhi and Islamabad move beyond a zero sum approach?


Recent weeks have witnessed some interesting developments in the context of Pakistan’s external outreach. First, a senior member of Imran Khan’s cabinet, Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, the prime minister’s adviser on finance (the de facto Finance Minister)while speaking to press on November 18th stated, that  Islamabad needed to move towards a CPEC+ arrangement, with countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia on board.

Pakistan-Iran ties

It would be pertinent to point out, that Islamabad has been concerted efforts towards improving ties with Tehran in the recent past. Both sides are moving towards strengthening security ties. Pakistan army chief, Qamar JavedBajwa visited Iran in November 2019 and met with President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif as well as senior military officials. Issues pertaining to regional security and deepening of strategic cooperation between both countries was discussed.

Both sides are also exploring synergies in areas like energy and connectivity. During a recent meeting of member states of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO consists of 11 member states, but was founded by Iran, Pakistan and Turkey) one of the issues which came up for discussion, was the possibility of a Iran-Pakistan-Turkey corridor. The thaw between Iran and Pakistan, is driven by a number of factors; Pakistan’s economic compulsions, China too would welcome Iran coming on board the CPEC, and off course Islamabad’s role in trying to bring about peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran (which was acknowledged by Iranian President Rouhani during Khan’s visit to Iran in October 2019). Iran has also invited Pakistan to get on board the Chabahar Project. Iran had granted India operational rights of Shahid Beheshti (Phase 1 of Chabahar Port). Chabahar for long has been projected, as a counter to the Gwadar Port, which is part of CPEC. Interestingly, in May 2019, the Iranian Foreign Minister during his visit to Pakistan stated, that Iran was willing to connect Gwadar with Chabahar.

The second interesting development is Pakistan’s warming up to Russia. One of the pivotal factors cited for the sudden improvement in Islamabad-Moscow ties is the fact, that Delhi aligned itself with Washington DC – much to the chagrin of Moscow. Russia-Pakistan ties have witnessed an upswing since a few years (Moscow has been training Pakistani military personnel in Russian military academies. During a recent Russian delegation’s visit (led by the Russian Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov)

Cooperation in a number of areas were discussed. Some of the important projects discussed included; the construction of a2.5 Billion USD gas pipeline project (from Lahore to Karachi), purchase of Sukhoi-built SSJ-100 narrow-body jets by Pakistan from Russia, and construction of a railway track . Both sides also sought to enhance their bilateral trade and push it beyond the current level of 700 Million USD.

Changes in Pakistan’s foreign policy

Pakistan is trying to diversify its foreign policy, and subtly seeking to look beyond Beijing. Paradoxically, it is Islamabad’s close ties with China which are playing a role in its improvement of relations with countries like Iran.New Delhi’s close strategic ties with Washington DC, have also played a role in Islamabad, getting closer not just to Moscow, but also Tehran.

. A recent Moody’s report, which upgraded Pakistan’s position from negative to stable was just the shot in the arm, the Imran Khan government was looking for. The Finance Ministry, while reacting to this upgrade stated:

“The upgradation of outlook to stable is an affirmation of the government’s success in handling the country’s economy. The government remains fully committed to its reform agenda, which is producing the outcomes that will lay a firm foundation for accelerated, sustainable and inclusive growth in the future.

The fact, that Pakistan is unlikely to be black listed by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is likely to give it some more space with regard to its foreign policy.

Islamabad and other smaller countries in South Asia

Islamabad, along with other countries will also now look at the revival of SAARC process. So far, New Delhi has been able to keep SAARC at bay. But with Pro-China governments in Nepal and Sri Lanka and the recent hiccups in New Delhi-Kabul and New Delhi-Dhaka over the Citizenship Amendment Bill CAB, smaller countries could push for revival of SAARC. Bangladesh PM, Sheikh Hasina had already alluded towards the revival of the SAARC process during her visit to India. Said Hasina

The fundamental way in moving ahead is to celebrate our region’s diversity, ethnicity and language. We need to hold hands across South Asia to build mutual trust and respect,

Apart from this, the economic slowdown in India, and the stellar economic performance of some of the smaller countries in the region, especially Bangladesh, is likely to impact Delhi’s bargaining power within the region – at least in the short run. For a few years, New Delhi’s efforts have been to isolate Pakistan, but even a number of strategic analysts in India have argued, that Islamabad has not been isolated, and that New Delhi needs to adopt a more pragmatic approach towards Islamabad. Many have also argued, that New Delhi has ended up hyphenating itself with Pakistan in recent years by focusing too much on Pakistan at international forums


Given all the above developments, it is likely, that Pakistan, supported by Beijing, will not just strengthen ties with Tehran, Moscow, try and also try to get it’s relationship with Washington DC (something which Beijing will not mind either) back on track. In South Asia, we could see a situation where smaller countries find common cause with Pakistan on certain issues.

While a zero-sum approach helps neither New Delhi and Islamabad, and is detrimental for the region, it will take a miracle for both countries, to resume substantial engagement, given the bad blood over the past year and the current domestic challenges, India needs to deal with. The outside world, off course has been pushing for the revival of engagement between both countries.  Beijing along with Washington has been pushing for revival of engagement (both sides welcome the Kartarpur Corridor initiative). For now, Islamabad may not be out of the woods, but it certainly is in a better position, than it was a few months ago. It depends upon the Pakistani deep state as to how it utilizes this change. India too needs to pay closer attention to the changes taking place in Pakistan, and should seriously work towards a more realistic and reasonable Pakistan policy. Hopefully, the pragmatists, in India’s strategic community, suggesting revival of engagement – albeit incremental – will be taken seriously. Geo-politics is complex, and each country sees it’s own interest, but South Asia for far too long, has suffered as a consequence of myopic thinking, and lack of genuine statesmanship.

Tridivesh Singh Maini
Tridivesh Singh Maini
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India


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