Pakistan’s new prime minister, Imran Khan, officially assumed office on August 18. It’s the first time in power for Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and the new government will have to learn quickly how to balance the country’s complex and sometimes competing foreign policy priorities.
To learn more about Pakistan’s foreign policy outlook under Imran Khan, Muhammad Akbar Notezai spoke with Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Their conversation touches on Pakistan’s foreign policy, new Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan’s relations with the United States and China, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
What is wrong with America and Pakistan relations? Why can the two sides not improve their strained relationship?
The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is a long, bitter tale of fundamental clashes, mainly in terms of expectations and interests. This isn’t to say there aren’t any shared objectives; these are two countries, after all, that have cooperated to combat a number of threats, from communism to al-Qaeda and more recently ISIS [Islamic State]. But at the end of the day, their overall interests and goals are framed by sharply different lenses. For Washington, it’s all about how Pakistan can help U.S. efforts in Afghanistan — even though the U.S. and Pakistan differ in their approaches to Afghanistan. And for Islamabad, it’s all about minimizing the threat of India — even though India is a friend, not a threat, to the United States. These disconnects produce discord and trust deficits that can’t easily be overcome, despite very real cooperation in a number of areas.
Despite the trust deficit and ups and downs in relations, can America and Pakistan ignore each other? If not, then why don’t the two countries amicably sort out their issues and move forward?
There is a fundamental paradox when it comes to U.S.-Pakistan relationships. Even though the two sides rarely see eye-to-eye and they don’t share many goals and interests, they both prefer to maintain their partnership, warts and all. It is the essence of a bad marriage — perhaps one of the most overused and clichéd metaphors to describe any bilateral relationship in international affairs, but at the same time so apt.
The United States views its relationship with Pakistan through the lens of Afghanistan, and it needs Islamabad’s help — at the very least, ensuring that Pakistan keeps the NATO supply lines on its soil open — to pursue its objectives in Afghanistan. More broadly, Washington prefers to be on the good side of Pakistan — a large, volatile, nuclear-armed nation located in a key geographic region — than on its bad side.
Pakistan, despite all its critical rhetoric and bluster, values its partnership with America and everything that comes with it — from the prestige of partnership with the world’s sole superpower to the high-tech weaponry that can’t be supplied by the Chinese or Pakistan’s other top defense partners.
Even though the two sides have compelling interests to make things work, that doesn’t mean the tensions and other baggage can easily be set aside. The biggest obstacle right now is that the Trump administration has elevated to top priority the issue of cross-border terror, which is one of the most tension-filled matters in the relationship and an issue that amplifies the disconnects and divergent interests at play in the relationship. For the U.S., Pakistan-based terrorists like the Haqqani Network are a paramount threat because they target U.S. and Afghan soldiers in Afghanistan. But for Pakistan, the Haqqani Network isn’t a threat at all. In fact, it’s an asset because it helps push back against India’s presence in Afghanistan. This is an irreconcilable issue, and yet Washington has effectively declared that it must be addressed. While the Trump White House has left open the possibility of pursuing a deeper partnership, it’s not willing to go there until the terrorism issue is addressed.
How does the West view Imran Khan?
There’s no one single view that the West has of Khan, but perceptions of him tend to be quite reductive and simplistic. There’s Imran Khan the ex-cricketer, and then there’s Imran Khan the conservative Islamist. Many, particularly those old enough to remember his sporting days, associate him with the Western-aligned, hard-partying reputation he earned during his cricket days, when he spent much of his time in England. Others see him as a religious hardliner with questionable views about women’s rights and terrorism.
In reality, both views, while containing elements of truth, are incomplete. For Khan’s many supporters in Pakistan, this failure to understand Khan with more nuance and complexity is a source of frustration. But with Khan now prime minister, his supporters can hope that he’ll take advantage of the opportunity to reintroduce himself to the world so that people finally understand him in ways that go beyond caricature.
In the run-up to July 25 elections in Pakistan, do you think the Western media has been unjustifiably critical of Imran Khan?
I do think it was unfairly critical, though to be fair I’d argue that the Western press also put out a series of quite positive portrayals of Khan in the weeks before the election. It is striking, however, that many Western media outlets embraced the narrative of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) party that asserted that Khan is essentially a stooge of the Pakistani army who willingly let the army manipulate him and the country to ensure an electoral playing field that would work to his advantage. The Western press also spilled a lot of ink on Khan’s sympathies for militants.
To be sure, elements of all this are true: There’s good reason to believe the military engineered efforts behind the scenes to strengthen the electoral prospects of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, and Khan has indeed expressed sympathy for the Taliban. But there’s still a whole other side to this. For example, Khan and the PTI are genuinely popular. They have captured a critical constituency of young, urban, conservative, middle class voters galvanized by Khan’s anti-corruption campaign and pitch for a “new Pakistan” devoid of the corrupt, family dynasties that have dominated Pakistani politics for several decades. This political reality — that Khan captured a key electoral demographic, and that millions of Pakistani voters chose Khan because they supported him, not because the army made them — didn’t get much press coverage in the West.
Another thing missing from the Western press’s coverage of Khan was his complexity (you can also rightly call it his contradictions). Yes, he expressed sympathy for the Taliban, but he’s also loudly condemned terrorism and especially sectarian-focused terror groups.
Unlike the Western media, reports and coverage in Chinese media about Khan have been favorable. Does that mean China will seek to further its footprint in Pakistan under Khan’s government?
China has a compelling interest to its footprint in Pakistan no matter who is leading the Pakistani government. Beijing is intent on building out the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor [CPEC] and broader Belt and Road Initiative as part of its grand strategy to facilitate access to far-flung markets and to deepen its clout around the world. That’s an irreversible strategy that won’t be deterred by the identity of Pakistan’s prime minister. To be sure, Beijing may well have preferred that the PMLN be reelected, given the PTI’s calls for China to be more transparent about the financing aspects of CPEC, while Beijing prefers to remain opaque. But the Chinese know that the PTI-led government will do everything it can to accommodate Beijing, given that CPEC, and the China-Pakistan relationship, are fraught with strategic importance for Pakistan.
What will Pakistan’s foreign policy be under Imran Khan?
The conventional thinking is that Khan won’t have much of a foreign policy, given that the military tightly controls this portfolio. And that’s true, to an extent. In reality, Khan’s views on foreign affairs, to the extent that we know them, are fairly consistent with those of the military: He harbors sympathies toward nefarious non-state actors like the Afghan Taliban; he wants to resolve the Kashmir dispute; he supports Pakistan’s deep partnerships with China and Saudi Arabia, and so on. At the same time, there are some notable differences. Khan, for example, is virulently anti-American in his rhetoric, while the Pakistani military seeks a workable relationship with Washington. Khan has also articulated a more pro-Iran message than has the military.
One of the big questions going forward is to what extent Khan stays with these positions at variance with the army, and to what extent the army attempts to redirect him. Khan is confident and stubborn and not given to deferring to higher authorities, suggesting he could try to blaze an independent trail and risk tensions with the military. At the same time, he’s wanted to be prime minister for 22 years, and he won’t want to imperil his hold on his dream job by sparring with the army over foreign policy. Ultimately, how Khan proceeds on foreign policy will go a long way toward determining the direction of civil-military relations during his term.
Under Khan’s government, how do you view Pakistan’s relations with China and America?
On China, it’s simple: The relationship will remain strong. There’s a deep political consensus in Pakistan in favor of maintaining Islamabad’s deep partnership with Beijing. That won’t change under Khan. From Pakistan’s perspective, there’s never been a more important time for Islamabad to remain close to China, particularly given the importance of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the uncertain future of Pakistan’s relationship with America. Soon after Khan won the election, his party’s Twitter account issued a message in Chinese. Khan, and his party, aren’t about to risk losing any goodwill with China at a such a critical moment in the relationship.
The trajectory of Pakistan’s relations with America will be shaped less by Imran Khan, who will have limited impact on the relationship, and more by the Pakistani military and how it responds to U.S. demands about cracking down on the terrorists in Pakistan that threaten Americans in Afghanistan. I don’t expect the Pakistani military to crack down on these terrorists anytime soon. And let’s be clear: Imran Khan will not be the civilian leader that pressures the army to take action against those terrorists. Khan is someone who has expressed sympathy for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and opposed any efforts to use force against terrorists in Pakistan. He’s not going to suddenly turn around and push the army to crack down. That would mark a wildly dramatic and unlikely shift in his views, and it would imperil his hold on the prime ministership that he fought for 22 years to obtain. The bottom line is we shouldn’t expect U.S.-Pakistan relations to improve much at all during the Khan era, but for reasons having less to do with Khan and more to do with the Pakistani army.
What do you think are the likely challenges for the Khan government?
There will be many challenges, and all these challenges will be compounded by Khan’s inexperience — he’s never held national power — and by a polarized political environment featuring a very unhappy opposition that has accused Khan’s party of benefiting from army-led pre-election rigging.
The main challenges will be domestic: Above all, there is an economic crisis that has precipitated a balance of payments crisis and plunging falling reserves. Beyond that, there is the extremism issue. Despite reductions in terrorist violence in recent years, Pakistan still offers an enabling environment for hate speech and other hardline ideologies that contribute to extremism as well as periodic terrorist attacks—such as a rash of them in the weeks before the election. Finally, Khan’s government will have to confront a series of worsening complex challenges that previous administrations have simply kicked down the road. These include rapidly worsening water shortages and the intensifying effects of climate change. These challenges have become so acute that the new government will no longer have the luxury of passing the buck.
There will also be challenges overseas, but the government will likely be shielded by them thanks to an army that has long been in the driver’s seat of foreign policy. These include figuring out how to make things work with Washington; how to address the issue of reconciliation talks in Afghanistan in light of U.S. efforts to pursue direct talks with the Taliban; what position to take in the deepening Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry; and how to improve an image that continues to worsen overseas.
In Pakistan, there is a general perception among people that China can replace America. Do you think China can really replace America for Pakistan?
While in Pakistan the view on the street and in public opinion may support the idea of China replacing America, that’s certainly not the opinion within the corridors of power. The Pakistani military does not want to lose America, and the political class on the whole feels the same way. I’ve been leading a U.S.-Pakistan Track II dialogue in recent months, and not one — not a single one — of the Pakistani participants, most of them retired senior military and civilian officials, has supported the idea of discarding America. These Pakistanis have repeatedly said that China cannot and should not replace the U.S. It’s easy to understand why: The U.S. provides Pakistan with certain types of weaponry, particularly high-tech arms, which the Chinese can’t match. For this reason, Pakistan — again, despite its public rhetoric — would very much prefer that the security assistance that Washington has frozen since January be resumed.
Additionally, the Pakistanis value the prestige value of a partnership with the world’s sole superpower, and they believe — wrongly, in my view — that Pakistani partnership with the U.S. improves the likelihood that Washington will seek to compel India to act in ways that help address Pakistan’s interests, such as by getting India to agree to talks to discuss the Kashmir dispute. There are certainly many benefits, both tactical and strategic, that Pakistan can get out of its relationship with China, but for Islamabad, the sum value of those benefits wouldn’t be enough to compensate for the loss of America.
What are the American reservations on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor?
Washington has never been very clear about its views on CPEC, and that may be intentional — a form of strategic ambiguity. The U.S. has never come out and offered a categorical rejection of CPEC, though Defense Secretary James Mattis did indicate, in Congressional testimony some months back, that the U.S. can’t support connectivity projects that raise sovereignty concerns. Here, he was seemingly echoing the view of New Delhi, which opposes CPEC because it entails projects in areas of Pakistan-administered Kashmir that India claims as its own. Still, aside from this, the U.S. has not taken a firm and clear position.
That said, the U.S. certainly has its concerns about CPEC. The main U.S. concern about CPEC is that it entails Washington’s top strategic rival deepening its footprint in a country where the U.S. is much less present and much less popular. Washington also sees CPEC, rightly, as a key linchpin of the broader Belt and Road Initiative, which is China’s main vehicle for expanding its global influence. When it comes to U.S. views of CPEC, perception is everything. So long as Washington perceives CPEC through a strategic lens, then it will naturally and understandably express concern, given that it represents a case of America’s top strategic rival expanding its influence. But if Washington were to perceive CPEC through an economic lens, then it may have a very different reaction. And that’s because the economic goals of CPEC — increasing and improving infrastructure, generating more electricity, creating jobs, and boosting prosperity and stability — are directly aligned with Washington’s own interests in Pakistan. But given that we’re talking about China — Washington’s main strategic rival — it’s not realistic to expect U.S. officials to regard CPEC through any lens other than a strategic one.
Do you think America is following in India’s footsteps when it comes to CPEC?
Mattis’s comments to Congress certainly suggest that the U.S. view is emulating that of India and taking an anti-CPEC position rooted in sovereignty issues. But I think that would be overstating things. First, the U.S. government has not formally and directly come out against CPEC. Second, it has not prevented American private companies, including General Electric, from investing in projects linked to CPEC.
Where the U.S. may be following in India’s footsteps with CPEC is in trying to generate alternatives. India has sought to invest in the Chabahar port in southern Iran, part of a broader connectivity project with Iran and Afghanistan, as a workaround to CPEC. Compared to CPEC, it’s small potatoes, and U.S. sanctions on Iran may doom the whole project. But the intention is there. Meanwhile, the U.S. clearly views its new Indo-Pacific strategy — an effort to promote free trade and greater connectivity across Asia — as an alternative to BRI. Again, the new Indo-Pacific strategy — which to this point is purely notional and wholly unproven — can’t hold a candle to BRI, with all its forward progress and concrete investments. But, again, the intention is there.
How are China-Pakistan relations evolving?
They should be fine. The China-Pakistan relationship has experienced some turbulence of late, much of it related to new strains with CPEC. These have ranged from concerns about the security of Chinese CPEC workers in Pakistan to the possibility that Pakistan may need to open up its accounting books on CPEC financing, which would worry Beijing. Additionally, China and India have recently experienced a modest rapprochement in their volatile relationship, which has produced some potential problems for China-Pakistan ties — such as the pledge made by China and India to develop connectivity projects in Afghanistan. This would not go down well at all in Islamabad.
All this said, these issues are hiccups at best. With Khan in power, the China-Pakistan relationship will find ways to move forward, just as it would no matter who is in power in Pakistan. The CPEC-related strains will be worked out; there’s too much at stake for both sides to let the CPEC problems fester. Neither side wants CPEC to be imperiled, and both sides will do everything they can to ensure it survives. Of course, whether Pakistan’s weakening economy has the capacity to weather the debt and other deleterious economic consequences brought on by CPEC is another story altogether.
If the PTI-led government seeks to avoid IMF support, can China guarantee financial backing?
China won’t want to keep providing bailouts, given the unhealthy precedent that would set. And let’s not forget that Beijing has sometimes turned Islamabad down when Pakistan has come to China in search of loans. In reality, I imagine China and Pakistan would work out a middle ground solution that would entail some modest emergency Chinese funding, coupled with additional bailout funds from Saudi Arabia and also Turkey, which has become an increasingly important economic partner for Pakistan of late. For Islamabad, the key is to gently turn to Beijing for modest financial support without alienating its critical ally, while simultaneously diversifying its sources of financing.
All this said, I can’t imagine Pakistan not going to the IMF. It doesn’t have the luxury of avoiding it. Given the urgency of its economic problems, it has little choice. For Pakistan, IMF support would be a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s still medicine critical for Pakistan’s economic health, and the country can’t afford not to take it.
For Imran Khan, there’s a great irony here, and also a major potential political risk. Khan has pledged to transform Pakistan into an Islamic welfare state, and yet one of his government’s first moves may be to seek a bailout from one of the West’s pre-eminent financial organizations.
The big lesson here is that practical considerations often trump, or at least put on hold, grand political ambitions.
Muhammad Akbar Notezai works with Pakistan’s daily Dawn.