from Asia Unbound

A Glimpse of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Under Imran Khan?

Imran Khan, chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), gives a speech as he declares victory in the general election in Islamabad, Pakistan, in this still image from a July 26, 2018 handout video. PTI handout/via Reuters TV

In a speech declaring victory in yesterday’s elections, Imran Khan outlined a vision for Pakistan’s relations with its neighbors, and called for “more balanced” ties with the United States.

July 26, 2018

Imran Khan, chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), gives a speech as he declares victory in the general election in Islamabad, Pakistan, in this still image from a July 26, 2018 handout video. PTI handout/via Reuters TV
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With around half the votes counted after Pakistan’s national election, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party holds a plurality though not a majority of the votes. This was not a smooth election by any stretch, but one with charges of pre-poll rigging and media intimidation.

Pakistan’s major political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), along with many other regional parties, have alleged widespread irregularities in the polling process on July 25; and the PML-N rejected the results outright. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan released a statement that the Election Commission of Pakistan’s performance “leaves much to be desired” and noted that some polling stations were staffed by officials “biased toward a certain party.” 

But despite this the Election Commission rejected claims of vote-rigging, and Imran Khan declared victory today. The shape of the government he will lead remains unknown for now, including what other parties might support him, as well as what might happen with possible challenges to the result. In Khan’s victory speech charting out his vision for the nation, he offered a glimpse of his foreign policy priorities. What he said, and the order of his priorities, might surprise.

First, in his preamble to the foreign policy section of his speech, he spoke about Pakistan’s economic crisis and the need for the country, as a result, to make peace with all its neighbors. This is obviously a laudable goal but one that has eluded Pakistan for decades. Then Khan ticked through his list:

  1. China: First on his list of countries was China, which he said has “given a chance” to Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor investments. He noted the success China has had lifting seven hundred million people out of poverty, and said there is much that Pakistan can learn from this experience.
  2. Afghanistan: He noted the “War on Terror” and the “Afghan jihad,” and said that Afghanistan’s people have suffered the most and needed peace. Pakistan would make all efforts to bring an end to the conflict, he said. He also said he wanted to see “open borders” with Afghanistan, “like the European Union.”
  3. United States: Khan said surprisingly little about this complex relationship but did call for a “mutually beneficial” relationship as opposed to the “one-way” present state of ties, which he says had brought much harm to Pakistan. He wants to see a “balanced relationship.”
  4. Iran: Khan would like to improve ties with this neighbor.
  5. Saudi Arabia: Khan appeared to suggest that he would like to see Pakistan play a possible peacemaker role in the Middle East: that whatever Pakistan could do, it would try to help ease tensions in that region.
  6. India: Khan said he was sad that the Indian media had made him out to be a “Bollywood film villain,” and that he was perhaps the Pakistani most familiar with India because of cricket. If India-Pakistan ties could improve, that would benefit all. He highlighted his desire to improve trade and commercial ties to benefit both countries and reduce poverty. He also, expectedly, said that Kashmir is the core issue, and that he was ready to take “two steps” forward to improve ties.

The above offers a tour d’horizon that elevates China above all others, not surprisingly given the enormous $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor commitment currently underway. His attention to U.S.-Pakistan ties comes in a regional context, linked to the enduring war in Afghanistan.

In all of this, Khan did not address what many in the United States will see as a threshold issue: the question of tackling and ending the presence of terrorist groups on Pakistani soil. At present, U.S. security assistance to Pakistan has been suspended since January over the question of Pakistan’s commitment to fighting terrorism. And now the Financial Action Task Force, the global money-laundering watchdog, has placed Pakistan on its “gray list,” a sign of the country’s weak counter-terrorist financing controls.

For U.S. leaders, improvement in U.S.-Pakistan ties will be possible once a clear commitment to tackling terrorism becomes more apparent. This will surely also rank as priority number one for Indian interlocutors as well; and for Afghans, too. Unfortunately for all three countries, it’s also the issue that Khan, a civilian politician widely described as the military’s “favored” candidate this time around, would be least likely to confront.

So despite the positive signals from this speech, Khan will have a hard time delivering better ties with Afghanistan, India, and the United States without addressing the terrorism issue writ large. And while Khan struck a positive, forward-looking tone in the speech, it’s important to remember that this is the same politician who has been highly critical of the United States and U.S. counterterrorism priorities in particular. It looks like a rocky road ahead.

My book about India’s rise on the world stage, Our Time Has Come: How India Is Making Its Place in the World, was just published by Oxford University Press in January. Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa. Or like me on Facebook (fb.me/ayresalyssa) or Instagram (instagr.am/ayresalyssa).

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