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South Asia

Evolving Pakistan-Sri Lanka relations: A Game Changer in South Asia



History of the bilateral relations

The genesis of the Pakistan-Sri Lanka relations can be found in the cultural connections of Islam and Buddhism. Islam came to the subcontinent in the early 8th century, following the conquest of Sindh by Muhammad bin Qasim, the commander of the Muslim empire, who led an armed campaign to rescue the widows of the Arab settlers in Ceylon (former name of Sri Lanka). Fast forward to the mid-20th century; it is reported that the Muslims of Sri Lanka supported the cause of the All India Muslim League for a separate homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. After Pakistan’s independence, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) constituted a Buddhist minority. On the other hand, Sri Lanka had 6.6 percent Muslim population by the 1950s and currently has 9 percent Muslims. Archeological surveys have traced various sights and symbols of Buddhist civilization and religion, primarily concentrated in Taxila, in the northern Punjab.

Pakistan has demonstrated due respect and appreciation for this heritage and have taken measures to preserve the remnants of the Buddhist civilization and became the first country in 1956 to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of Lord Buddha. Moreover, Pakistan also participated in the world Buddhist conferences in Colombo starting from the 1950s. In 1976, Sri Lanka reciprocated the civilizational gesture by naming a public ground in Colombo as Jinnah Maidan. Local governments in various regions of Sri Lanka also arranged exhibitions of Buddhist antiques and relics from Pakistan, including the inauguration of the Gandhara art exhibition arranged by the Pakistani community in Colombo.

Notwithstanding, the heartwarming historical connections, the cultural affinity got affected after the separation of East Pakistan in 1971 and has almost disappeared ever since the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-87)  instrumentalised Islam on the national scale. As of now, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s promotion of religious tourism has great potential to revive the cultural affinities and linkages that Pakistan had with other nations and states. .

Nonetheless, one can find solace and take inspiration from the continued political, security and economic bilateral interaction between the two states

Political drivers of the relationship

Sri Lanka and Pakistan are members of the Commonwealth of Nations. Both countries also regularly observe elections and seek to institutionalize the democratic norms and ideals as a prerequisite for democratic governance. They were also members of the Colombo Plan and conveners of the Bandung conferences, sharing the political stance against communism. When Sri Lanka assumed the chairmanship of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM), Pakistan became its full-fledged member in 1979.

Generally, there have been infrequent visits of the political heads of states from the two sides. Relations with Sri Lanka may well be analyzed in the general framework of Pakistan’s Indo-Pacific policy, which tends to vary from being non-existent to once in five-year term engagement.

The only exception may have been the defense and security aspects of the relationship.

Defense and Security Links of the Relationship

Almost all the smaller South Asian states are confronted with the dire consequences of India’s offensive military doctrines and strategies towards neighboring states. Given, India’s preponderance and aspirations to become a regional hegemon, these concerns can only be dismissed at one’s own peril. Sri Lanka’s northern region and India’s southern region is inhibited by the Tamil populations. It is also an open secret that New Delhi exerts political influence so as to pressurize Colombo to ensure political and economic rights of the Lankan Tamils and has covertly fueled the Tamil uprisings in Sri Lanka.

The threat from India might have propelled Sri Lanka to join the U.S.-led alliance of SEATO and CENTO, just like Pakistan which also saw these US-led pacts as a means to bolster its security against India. Later, during the 1971 crisis in East Pakistan, when India blocked West Pakistan’s overflight through the Indian airspace, Sri Lanka stepped in and granted the Pakistani civilian and military airplanes stopover and landing rights. However, the author could not find any evidence of military aircrafts making stopovers in Sri Lanka for refueling or other services during war in late 1971. Furthermore, Sri Lanka has observed a neutral stance on the Kashmir issue and India-Pakistan’s conflict. That leaves us with the single essential element of security, namely terrorism that set the tone of relations or laid the foundation for an expansion in the bilateral defense ties of Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The Tamils of the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka formed a rebel group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in 1975, for curving out a separate state for the Tamil population. Pakistan has supplied Sri Lanka with fighter jets and military training and support that successfully defeated the LTTE terrorists.

Later, when Pakistan was engulfed in the terrorist strikes nationwide, from 2007 to 2014, it reportedly sought Sri Lanka’s support in military training for its counter-insurgency operations.

The cooperation in getting rid of terrorism paved the way for strong defense relations between the two countries. In 2016, Pakistan signed an agreement with Sri Lanka to provide eight JF-17 fighter aircraft. Pakistani and Sri Lankan armed and naval forces have also been through port calls, military, and defense workshops and seminars.

Later in 2020, during his visit to Sri Lanka, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has remained focused on establishing strategic ties with Sri Lanka and has invited it to join Quad- a multilateral alliance forged to ensure security in Indian Ocean’ region. The alliance is comprised of Australia, India, Japan and US. Pompeo stated, “We see from bad deals, violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator, and the United States comes in a different way, we come as a friend, and as a partner”. Significantly, when Sri Lanka and China agreed to lease the Hambantota port to Sri Lanka for 99 years, other states like Japan and India tried to initiate similar projects for strategic objectives. In contrast, Pakistan did not seek to press Sri Lanka or other smaller regional states in pursuit of its strategic interests through military initiatives like the Indo-Pacific strategy. Hence, a shared diplomatic stance on emerging regional security and strategic dynamics has played a crucial role in further advancing their defense ties.

Another diplomatically significant but financially low-valued aspect of the relationship might be economic cooperation.

Significance of the bilateral relationship in economy

Pakistan has Free Trade Agreements (FTA) with only three countries, China, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. Interestingly, it is only with Sri Lanka that Pakistan a trade surplus. Both countries signed the FTA in 2002 that came into effect in 2005, and the phasing out process by the two countries ended in 2010. Sri Lanka got duty-free access over the 206 items, including tea, rubber, and coconuts. Pakistan received zero-tariff concessions over 102 articles, including oranges, basmati rice, and engineering products.

Pakistan’s top three exports to Sri Lanka include cotton, pharmaceutical goods, and mineral manufactured items. Sri Lanka’s top three exports to Pakistan have been a) ships, boats and floating materials; b) vegetable items, including tea, coffee, and pulses; and, c) rubber or rubber-made items.

Although, the financial value of the economic relationship may appear to be modest, the diplomatic significance of the FTA is enormous given that it has the potential to strengthen bilateral ties of Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Sri Lanka visit: Game Changer

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first visit to Sri Lanka in February 2021 is viewed from the prism of India’s offensive strategy towards regional states and Pakistan’s proactive strategy aimed at regional stability. During the two-day visit Imran Khan highlighted the prospects of a bilateral strategic partnership between Islamabad and Colombo.  PM Khan urged his counterpart to join the multi-billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While addressing a joint press conference with his Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Imran Khan said, “My visit aims to strengthen bilateral relationship [with Sri Lanka], especially trade and economic ties through enhanced connectivity.”

During the visit, both states agreed to further enhance bilateral relations through investment, trade, technology, science, tourism and culture and agreed to boost connectivity to achieve this end.  Thus, both states signed several Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) pertaining to these areas of mutual interests. The MoUs signed between Pakistan and Sri Lanka during Imran Khan’s February visit include:

  1. MoU on cooperation in tourism.
  2. MoU between the Boards of Investment.
  3. MoU between Sri Lanka’s Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) and Karachi University’s International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences.
  4. The intent of cooperation between ITI and Comsats University Islamabad.
  5. MoU between University of Colombo and Lahore School of Economics.

 Subsequently, Pakistan and Sri Lanka agreed to collaborate in higher education. Pakistan announce 100 scholarships for Sri Lankan students as part of the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Higher Education Cooperation Programme. 

Both Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been targets of radical terrorist groups and extremism due to multiple endogenous and exogenous factors. These include terror financing by hostile countries like India to foment unrest and exploitation of internal sectarian cleavages by vested interest groups for parochial purposes. .Predictably, the turmoil  and civil war in Afghanistan had a spillover impact on regional security. Escalating terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka instigate instability and insecurity in the country. During his visit, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced a US$ 50 million for defense purchases.  The two countries also agreed to increase cooperation in countering terrorism and systematic crimes. Pakistan has initiated a series of military operations and effectively countered the menace of terrorism and extremism. Thus Pakistan can help Sri Lanka in combating terrorism and extremism drawing on its own experience. In this regard, Pakistan can help by sharing expertise in developing an effective mechanism to counter-terrorism and strengthening criminal justice institutions.

In fact, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are brought together among others by their geopolitical, economic, and security interests in the region. Therefore, Pakistan desires to enhance ties with Sri Lanka through economic and regional connectivity and this can be ensured if Sri Lanka becomes part of CPEC. This will help cement the ties and enable the two countries to beneficially promote regional connectivity and achieve economic growth and development. .

Consequently, the strategic troika comprising Pakistan-Sri Lanka and China can offset the growing concerns of regional states regarding Quad. Therefore, evolving Pakistan and Sri Lanka ties are marked as more practical and focused on bilateral cooperation aimed at overcoming the emerging geo-economic challenges. In particular, Pakistan’s assistance to Sri Lanka during civil war highlights the tactical or strategic nature of the relations.  In short, the Pakistan-Sri Lanka axis will further grow through bilateral cooperation; additionally, the prospects to connect China’s CPEC projects, economic and military engagements highlights that bilateral relations can be a game-changer in the region.

The growing role of India in the security architecture of the region and Indo-US strategic alliance is the concern of all the South Asian states. Thus, to maintain regional stability and further enhance bilateral cooperation following policy measures are recommended: 

Policy Recommendations

  1. Increased State level Visits

The visits must aim to enhance and develop bilateral relations in the areas ranging from human rights, economy, trade, environmental protection, climate change, cultural contacts etc. Therefore, frequent state to state visits between Islamabad and Colombo can play a significant role in further improving economic, political and military ties.

  • Regional Cooperation through SAARC

Cooperative regional organizations engaging in non-political or low-political spheres such as technical, social, economic, cultural and scientific sectors provide vastly practical opportunities for building effective cooperation among the member states. Hence, it can play an effective role in bilateral cooperation and regional development. PM Imran Khan’s vision of regional connectivity can be achieved through SAARC because of the mutual advantage for the participating states.

  • Enhanced cooperation in security, counter-terrorism and organized crime

Pakistan and Sri Lanka are the victims of terrorism and extremism. A bilateral security framework based on defense cooperation can provide adequate solutions to existing terrorism and regional security challenges.

  • Sports Diplomacy

Sports can be used as a political tool to enhance bilateral relations among states. Cricket is the most famous and widely played game in South Asia and can be used as a political tool to strengthen bilateral diplomatic relations.  Even during his visit to Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Imran Khan also exercised sports diplomacy and had an interactive session with the sports community of Sri Lanka.


Pakistan-Sri Lanka relations are based on cultural links, defense cooperation, and economic diplomacy. All of these segments of the relationship operate at a low scale currently. Both countries can coordinate to expand, deepen and strengthen each of these elements, given that the political will leads to policy formulation and execution. Sri Lanka will indeed face pressure from India to expand ties with regional states, but Colombo can find a balance, given its experience of doing so between China and India. Pakistan should revive the tradition of commemorating the anniversary of Lord Buddha and further advertise its Buddhist tourism sites. Both countries can also exploit the prevailing FTA and expand the bilateral trade. All of it only demands further policy reorientation.

Asma Khalid is a Senior Research Associate at the Center of Pakistan and International Relations (COPAIR), Islamabad. She was a South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow at The Stimson Center, Washington, D.C. United States. Her research interests include South Asian strategic issues, including nuclear nonproliferation, deterrence dynamics, nuclear politics and policies, and nuclear safety and security. Her analysis of these issues has featured in national and international publication platforms.

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South Asia

S. Jaishankar’s ‘The India Way’, Is it a new vision of foreign policy?



S. Jaishankar has had an illustrious Foreign Service career holding some of the highest and most prestigious positions such as ambassador to China and the US and as foreign secretary of India. Since 2019 he has served as India’s foreign minister. S. Jaishankar also has a Ph.D. in international relations from JNU and his academic background is reflected in this book.

His main argument is simplistic, yet the issues involved are complex. Jaishankar argues that the world is changing fundamentally, and the international environment is experiencing major shifts in power as well as processes. China is rising and western hegemony is declining. We are moving away from a unipolar system dominated by the US to a multipolar system. Globalization is waning and nationalism and polarization is on the rise (p. 29). The old order is going away but we cannot yet glimpse what the future will look like. This is the uncertain world that Dr. Jaishankar sees.

Dr. Jaishankar also argues that India too has changed, it is more capable and more assertive. The liberalization program that began in 1991 has made the Indian economy vibrant and globally competitive and it is well on track to becoming the third biggest economy in the world, after China and the US.  The war of 1971 that liberated Bangladesh, the liberalization of the economy after 1991, the nuclear tests in 1998 and the nuclear understanding with the US in 2005, Jaishankar argues are landmarks in India’s strategic evolution (p. 4). So given that both India and the system have changed, Jaishankar concludes, so should India’s foreign policy.

But his prescription for India’s foreign policy, in the grand scheme of things, is the same as before – India should remain nonaligned and not join the US in its efforts to contain China. India will try to play with both sides it seems in order to exploit the superpowers and maximize its own interests (p. 9). But he fails to highlight how India can find common ground with China other than to say the two nations must resolve things diplomatically. He also seems to think that the US has infinite tolerance for India’s coyness. In his imagination the US will keep making concessions and India will keep playing hard to get.

Jaishankar has a profound contradiction in his thinking. He argues that the future will be determined by what happens between the US and China. In a way he is postulating a bipolar future to global politics. But he then claims that the world is becoming multipolar and this he claims will increase the contests for regional hegemony. The world cannot be both bipolar and multipolar at the same time.

There is also a blind spot in Jaishankar’s book.  He is apparently unaware of the rise of Hindu nationalism and the demand for a Hindu state that is agitating and polarizing India’s domestic politics. The systematic marginalization and oppression of Muslim minorities at home and the growing awareness overseas of the dangers of Hindutva extremism do not exist in the world that he lives in. He misses all this even as he goes on to invoke the Mahabharata and argue how Krishna’s wisdom and the not so ethical choices during the war between Pandavas and Kauravas should be a guide for how India deals with this uncertain world – by balancing ethics with realism (p. 63). Methinks his little digression in discussing the ancient Hindu epic is more to signal his ideological predilections than to add any insights to understanding the world or India’s place in it.  

One aspect of his work that I found interesting is his awareness of the importance of democracy and pluralism. He states that India’s democracy garners respect and gives India a greater opportunity to be liked and admired by other nations in the world (p. 8). Yet recently when he was asked about the decline of India’s democratic credentials, his response was very defensive, and he showed visible signs of irritation. It is possible that he realizes India is losing ground internationally but is unwilling to acknowledge that his political party is responsible for the deterioration of India’s democracy.

This is also apparent when he talks about the importance of India improving its relations with its immediate neighbors. He calls the strategy as neighborhood first approach (pp. 9-10). What he does not explain is how an Islamophobic India will maintain good relations with Muslim majority neighbors like Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan.

The book is interesting, it has its limitations and both, what is addressed and what is left out, are clearly political choices and provide insights into how New Delhi thinks about foreign policy. So, coming to the question with which we started, does India have a new foreign policy vision? The answer is no. Dr. Jaishankar is right, there is indeed an India way, but it is the same old way, and it entails remaining nonaligned with some minor attitudinal adjustments.  

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South Asia

India’s open invitation to a nuclear Armageddon



Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane said that “India was not averse to the possible demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier ,  the world’s highest battleground and an old sore in India-Pakistan ties , provided the neighbour accepted the 110-km Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) that separates Indian and Pakistani positions. Acceptance of AGPL is the first step towards demilitarisation but the Pakistan side loathes doing that”. He said, ‘The Siachen situation occurred because of unilateral attempts by Pakistan to change status quo and countermeasures taken by the Indian Army’ (Not averse to demilitarisation of Siachen if Pak meets pre-condition: Army chief, Hindustan Times January 13, 2022).

Reacting to the Indian army chief’s statement, Pakistan’s former foreign secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan reminisced that the Siachen could not fructify into a written agreement because India wanted Siachen and Kashmir to be settled together. India’s approach ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ scuttled the agreement. As for Kashmir, “a simultaneous effort was made through the backchannel …in what is commonly known as the Four-Point Formula” (Siachen recollections, Dawn January 16, 2022). Riaz laments Indi’s distrust that hindered a solution.

Shyam Saran, a voice in the wilderness

Shyam Saran, in his book How India Sees the World (pp. 88-93) makes startling revelations about how this issue eluded solution at last minute. India itself created the Siachen problem.  Saran reminisces, in the 1970s, US maps began to show 23000 kilometers of Siachen area under Pakistan’s control. Thereupon, Indian forces were sent to occupy the glacier in a pre-emptive strike, named Operation Meghdoot. Pakistani attempts to dislodge them did not succeed. But they did manage to occupy and fortify the lower reaches’.

He recalls how Siachen Glacier and Sir Creek agreements could not fructify for lack of political will or foot dragging. He says ‘NN Vohra, who was the defence secretary at the time, confirmed in a newspaper interview that an agreement on Siachen had been reached. At the last moment, however, a political decision was taken by the Narasimha Rao government to defer its signing to the next round of talks scheduled for January the following year. But, this did not happen…My defence of the deal became a voice in the wilderness’.

Saran says, `Kautliyan template would say the options for India are sandhi, conciliation; asana, neutrality; and yana, victory through war. One could add dana, buying allegiance through gifts; and bheda, sowing discord. The option of yana, of course would be the last in today’s world’ (p. 64, ibid.).

India’s current first option

It appears that Kautliya’s last-advised option,yana, as visualised by Shyam Saran, is India’s first option nowadays. Kautlya also talks about koota yuddha (no holds barred warfare), and maya yuddha (war by tricks) that India is engaged in.

Cartographic annexation

By unilaterally declaring the disputed Jammu and Kashmir its territory does not solve the Kashmir problem. This step reflects that India has embarked upon the policy “might is right”. In Kotliyan parlance it would be “matsy nyaya, or mach nyaya”, that is big fish eats the small one. What if China also annexes disputed borders with India?  India annexed Kashmir presuming that Pakistan is not currently in a position to respond militarily, nor could it agitate the matter at international forums for fear of US ennui.  

India’s annexation smacks of acceptance of quasi-Dixon Plan, barring mention of plebiscite and division of Jammu. . Dixon proposed: Ladakh should be awarded to India. Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (including Gilgit and Baltistan) should remain with Pakistan. Whole Kashmir valley should have a plebiscite with no option to independence. Jammu should be divided on religious basis. The river Chmab should be the dividing line. Northern Jammu (Muslims dominated) should go to Pakistan and Hindu majority parts of Jammu to remain with India.

In short Muslim areas should have gone with Pakistan and Hindu-Buddhist majority areas should have remained with India.

India’s annexation has no legal sanctity. But, it could have bbeen sanctified in a mutually agreed Kashmir solution.

India’s propaganda

India portrays the freedom movement in Kashmir as `terrorism’. What about India’s terrorism in neighbouring countries?

The world is listless to accounts of former diplomats and RAW officers about executing insurgencies in neighbouring countries. B. Raman, in his book The Kaoboys of R&AW: Down Memory Lane makes no bones about India’s involvement up to the level of prime minister in Bangladesh’s insurgency.

 Will the world take notice of confessions by Indi’s former intelligence officers and diplomats?B. Raman reminds `Indian parliament passed resolution on March 31, 1971 to support insurgency. Indira Gandhi had then confided with Kao that in case Mujib was prevented from ruling Pakistan, she would liberate East Pakistan from the clutches of the military junta. Kao, through one RAW agent, hijacked a Fokker Friendship, the Ganga, of Indian Airlines hijacked from Srinagar to Lahore.

India’s ambassador Bharath Raj Muthu Kumar, with the consent of then foreign minister Jaswant Singh, `coordinated military and medical assistance that India was secretly giving to Massoud and his forces’… `helicopters, uniforms, ordnance, mortars, small armaments, refurbished Kalashnikovs seized in Kashmir, combat and winter clothes, packaged food, medicines, and funds through his brother in London, Wali Massoud’, delivered circuitously with the help of other countries who helped this outreach’. When New Delhi queried about the benefit of costly support to Northern Alliance chief Massoud, Kumar explained, “He is battling someone we should be battling. When Massoud fights the Taliban, he fights Pakistan.”

Death of back-channel

In his memoirs In the line of fire (pp.302-303), president Musharraf had proposed a personal solution of the Kashmir issue.  This solution, in essence, envisioned self-rule in demilitarised regions of Kashmir under a joint-management mechanism.   The solution pre-supposed* reciprocal flexibility.

Death of dialogue and diplomacy

Riaz warns of “incalculable” risks as the result of abrogation of Kashmir statehood (Aug 5, 2019). Both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. In the absence of a dialogue on outstanding issues, war, perhaps a nuclear one,  comes up as the only option.

Concluding remark

Sans sincerity, the only Kashmir solution is a nuclear Armageddon. Or, perhaps divine intervention.

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South Asia

Major Challenges for Pakistan in 2022



Pakistan has been facing sever challenges since 1980s, after the former USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. The history is full of challenges, but, being a most resilient nation, Pakistan has faced some of them bravely and overcome successfully. Yet, few are rather too big for Pakistan and still struggling to overcome in the near future.

Some of the challenges are domestic or internal, which can be addressed conveniently. But, some of them are part of geopolitics and rather beyond control of Pakistan itself. Such challenges need to pay more attention and need to be smarter and address them wisely.

Few key areas will be the main focus of Pakistan in the year ahead. Relations with China and the US while navigating the Sino-US confrontation, dealing with Afghanistan’s uncertainties, managing the adversarial relationship with India and balancing ties between strategic ally Saudi Arabia and neighbor Iran.

Pakistan has to pursue its diplomatic goals in an unsettled global and regional environment marked by several key features. They include rising East-West tensions, increasing preoccupation of big powers with domestic challenges, ongoing trade and technology wars overlying the strategic competition between China and the US, a fraying rules-based international order and attempts by regional and other powers to reshape the rules of the game in their neighborhood.

Understanding the dynamics of an unpredictable world is important especially as unilateral actions by big powers and populist leaders, which mark their foreign policy, have implications for Pakistan’s diplomacy. In evolving its foreign policy strategy Pakistan has to match its goals to its diplomatic resources and capital. No strategy is effective unless ends and means are aligned.

Pakistan’s relations with China will remain its overriding priority. While a solid economic dimension has been added to long-standing strategic ties, it needs sustained high-level engagement and consultation to keep relations on a positive trajectory. CPEC is on track, timely and smoothly progress is crucial to reinforce Beijing’s interest in strengthening Pakistan, economically and strategically. Close coordination with Beijing on key issues remains important.

Pakistan wants to improve ties with the US. But relations will inevitably be affected by Washington’s ongoing confrontation with Beijing, which American officials declare has an adversarial dimension while China attributes a cold war mindset to the US. Islamabad seeks to avoid being sucked into this big power rivalry. But this is easier said than done. So long as US-China relations remain unsteady it will have a direct bearing on Pakistan’s effort to reset ties with the US especially as containing China is a top American priority. Pakistan desires to keep good relations with the US, but, not at the cost of China. In past, Pakistan was keeping excellent relations with US, while simultaneously very close with China. When the US imposed economic blockade against China and launched anti-communism drive during the cold war, Pakistan was close ally with the US and yet, keeping excellent relations with China. Pakistan played vital role in bring China and the US to establish diplomatic relations in 1970s. Yet, Pakistan possesses the capability to narrow down the hostility between China and the US.

Pakistan was close ally with the US during cold war, anti-communism threat, war against USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1980s, and war on terror, etc. Pakistan might be a small country, but, possesses strategic importance. As long as, the US was cooperating with Pakistan, Pakistan looked after the US interest in the whole region. In fact, Pakistan ensured that the US has achieved its all strategic goals in the region. Since, the US kept distance from Pakistan, is facing failure after another failure consecutively. The importance of Pakistan is well recognized by the deep state in the US.

US thinks that withdrawal from Afghanistan has diminished Pakistan’s importance for now. For almost two decades Afghanistan was the principal basis for engagement in their frequently turbulent ties, marked by both cooperation and mistrust. As Pakistan tries to turn a new page with the US the challenge is to find a new basis for a relationship largely shorn of substantive bilateral content. Islamabad’s desire to expand trade ties is in any case contingent on building a stronger export base.

Complicating this is Washington’s growing strategic and economic relations with India, its partner of choice in the region in its strategy to project India as a counterweight to China. The implications for Pakistan of US-India entente are more than evident from Washington turning a blind eye to the grim situation in occupied Kashmir and its strengthening of India’s military and strategic capabilities. Closer US-India ties will intensify the strategic imbalance in the region magnifying Pakistan’s security challenge.

Multiple dimensions of Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan will preoccupy Islamabad, which spent much of 2021 engaged with tumultuous developments there. While Pakistan will continue to help Afghanistan avert a humanitarian and economic collapse it should not underestimate the problems that may arise with an erstwhile ally. For one, the TTP continues to be based in Afghanistan and conduct attacks from there. The border fencing issue is another source of unsettled discord. Careful calibration of ties will be needed — assisting Afghanistan but avoiding overstretch, and acknowledging that the interests of the Taliban and Pakistan are far from identical. Moreover, in efforts to mobilize international help for Afghanistan, Islamabad must not exhaust its diplomatic capital, which is finite and Pakistan has other foreign policy goals to pursue.

Managing relations with India will be a difficult challenge especially as the Modi government is continuing its repressive policy in occupied Kashmir and pressing ahead with demographic changes there, rejecting Pakistan’s protests. The hope in establishment circles that last year’s backchannel between the two countries would yield a thaw or even rapprochement, turned to disappointment when no headway was made on any front beyond the re-commitment by both neighbors to observe a ceasefire on the Line of Control.

Working level diplomatic engagement will continue on practical issues such as release of civilian prisoners. But prospects of formal dialogue resuming are slim in view of Delhi’s refusal to discuss Kashmir. This is unlikely to change unless Islamabad raises the diplomatic costs for Delhi of its intransigent policy. Islamabad’s focus on Afghanistan last year meant its diplomatic campaign on Kashmir sagged and was limited to issuing tough statements. Unless Islamabad renews and sustains its international efforts with commitment and imagination, India will feel no pressure on an issue that remains among Pakistan’s core foreign policy goals.

With normalization of ties a remote possibility, quiet diplomacy by the two countries is expected to focus on managing tensions to prevent them from spinning out of control. Given the impasse on Kashmir, an uneasy state of no war, no peace is likely to continue warranting Pakistan’s sustained attention.

In balancing ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan should consider how to leverage possible easing of tensions between the long-standing rivals — of which there are some tentative signs. With Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman keen to use economic power to expand his country’s diplomatic clout by making strategic overseas investments, Pakistan should use its political ties with Riyadh to attract Saudi investment through a coherent strategy. Relations with Iran too should be strengthened with close consultation on regional issues especially Afghanistan. The recent barter agreement is a step in the right direction.

In an increasingly multipolar world, Pakistan also needs to raise its diplomatic efforts by vigorous outreach to other key countries and actors beyond governments to secure its national interests and goals.

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