The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia | Southeast Asia

Why Southeast Asia Should Matter to Imran Khan’s Pakistan

As Khan seeks to break new ground in Pakistan’s foreign policy, it’s time to give ASEAN a closer look.

By Sidra Tariq Jamil and Mustafa Izzuddin for
Why Southeast Asia Should Matter to Imran Khan’s Pakistan

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (right) shakes hands with then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad during a trip to Malaysia, February 4, 2020.

Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Pakisan

On matters of foreign policy, Pakistan has not traditionally been coherent and progressive. Part of the reason is the disruption caused by domestic compulsions, border convulsions, and Pakistan’s role in the war on terror, which have collectively hindered the conduct of a robust and effective foreign policy by successive governments in the regional and global arenas.

But in more recent times, there has been a renewed diplomatic appetite to revamp Pakistan’s foreign policy after gradual breakthroughs in democratic transitions and attendant domestic political stability, coupled with successes in the war against terrorism. The economic liberalization of Pakistan, despite the recurring domestic roadblocks, has also enabled Islamabad to conduct a foreign policy that is elastic and effective enough to attract investments into the country.

Against this backdrop, the Pakistani government under popular Prime Minister Imran Khan should consider Southeast Asia as a feasible testbed for the conduct of a foreign policy that is synonymous with Khan’s idea of Naya (new) Pakistan. Early indications suggest that the Khan government has shown a genuine enthusiasm to advance Pakistan’s policy toward Southeast Asia by stepping up both multilateral and bilateral engagements with the region.

The time is therefore opportune and conditions are ripe for Khan to prioritize Southeast Asia in Pakistan’s foreign policy and, concomitantly, redress the benign neglect in Pakistan-Southeast Asia relations. Doing so should breathe new life into Pakistan’s “Vision East Asia” policy, which was enacted in 2003 to look eastwards for economic engagement. The policy has stagnated because of domestic exigencies and a preoccupation with looking westwards for constructive engagements with regions such as the Middle East, Europe, and Central Asia. By looking east, the Khan government could further diversify Pakistan’s foreign policy.

An obvious starting point to engage Southeast Asia is through the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Apart from India, which is a full dialogue partner of ASEAN, Pakistan is the only other South Asian country that has a dialogue partnership with ASEAN, albeit a step down at the sectoral level. It has been Pakistan’s strategic aspiration to upgrade its sectoral status to a full dialogue partner of ASEAN, as reiterated by the country’s current Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in 2019. It is thus not a surprise that Islamabad has been actively lobbying ASEAN countries to support Pakistan’s ascent to a full dialogue partner.

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For a start, Pakistan is leveraging the “Muslim brotherliness” of Malaysia and Indonesia to secure the support of the two biggest Muslim countries in Southeast Asia. Pakistan has also been courting Singapore, although thus far, Singapore’s support for Pakistan’s upgrade to full dialogue partnership appears to be lukewarm. Engaging the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam) countries has brought some joy to Islamabad, as these four states, not least Cambodia, appear to be amenable toward supporting Pakistan’s full dialogue partnership with ASEAN. CLMV countries have benefited from the ASEAN-Pakistan Cooperation Fund in aiding their human resources development, including offering scholarships and English language training, which, on the whole, have strengthened the relations between Pakistan and CLMV countries.

Although Pakistan is unlikely to achieve full dialogue partnership anytime soon, the journey toward reaching this goal can rake in benefits for Pakistan that could then endear the Khan government to the domestic population. In the economic field for instance, Pakistan’s total bilateral trade with ASEAN of $6.3 billion suggests that there is scope for Islamabad to scale up its economic engagement with ASEAN through its member-states, especially when compared to India, which has a total bilateral trade with ASEAN of around $96.8 billion.

It would be in the interest of the Khan government, which is keen on pursuing economic diplomacy in the country’s foreign policy, to lend greater urgency and synergy to bring the Pakistan-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (FTA) into fruition. Although a joint feasibility study of this FTA was concluded in 2009, there has been little headway made since then and it appears to have faded into oblivion. Pulling the FTA off – as onerous as the task may be – will be a feather in the cap of Khan’s government while also testifying to Pakistan’s seriousness to engage ASEAN. Because ASEAN as a collective boasts the fifth largest economy in the world, such an agreement would bring huge economic benefits to Pakistan and thereby helping to improve the lives of Pakistanis.

As a country that has long battled an image problem of being a haven for extremists and terrorists, Pakistan should look to ASEAN as a viable conduit to emphasize to the international community that it is deeply committed to counterterrorism efforts while revamping its image as a country that is moderate, inclusive, and diverse. As such, Khan’s government should not only continue to ensure that Pakistan remains an active member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, but also inject more momentum to the Joint Declaration for Cooperation to Combat Terrorism, which was signed between ASEAN and Pakistan in 2005. Working in partnership with ASEAN on counterterrorism allows Pakistan to boost its chances of becoming a full dialogue partner while also “normalizing” it as a country of repute in the eyes of the international community.

The way ASEAN has been managing its relations with China can hold lessons for Pakistan. As Pakistan draws so much closer to China due to financial inducements under the Belt and Road Initiative, it has to be mindful of not losing its territorial sovereignty and being pressured to do China’s bidding. Pakistan should remain neutral on the South China Sea dispute instead of supporting China so as to remain on good terms with claimants from Southeast Asia.

On the bilateral level, Pakistan should also look for ways to strengthen relations with each of the 10 Southeast Asian countries, chiefly in the area of trade and investment. The economic potential in both mainland and maritime Southeast Asia is immense and has not been tapped by Pakistan to the fullest. Another area that is underdeveloped is defense cooperation, as this could aid Pakistan in its defense production and manufacturing. In fact, Pakistani defense planners have identified Southeast Asia as a lucrative market for the export of Pakistan-made arms. Pakistan also has access to training facilities by conducting joint defense and military exercises. The existing maritime exercises Pakistan conducts with Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore should continue under Imran Khan as it helps build trust and confidence between Pakistan and Southeast Asia and in so doing contributes to geopolitical tranquility and regional security.

As Southeast Asia is home to a significant Pakistani diaspora, with the largest in Malaysia, the Khan government should step up efforts to court overseas Pakistanis in the hope that they would project a favorable image of Pakistan in the Southeast Asian countries where they reside, and also keep a link to their homeland while contributing to the economy back home. Pakistan has also been keen on exhibiting a people-oriented diplomacy in its foreign policy, which includes encouraging people-to-people contacts between Pakistan and Southeast Asia.

By courting ASEAN, Islamabad hopes that the regional organization and its member-states will be more sympathetic to Pakistan’s interests vis-à-vis India, including on the issue of Kashmir. Although ASEAN has taken a neutral position by calling for negotiation to de-escalate tensions between India and Pakistan, a Track II ASEAN advocacy group is set to be created to support Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir. Islamabad also hopes that engaging ASEAN could illustrate that Pakistan under Imran Khan is a stable and normal country that is open for business.

Rather than fixate on India’s engagement of Southeast Asia and perceive it as a geopolitical competition, Pakistan under Khan should chart its own path and come up with its own blueprint for engaging Southeast Asia. Pakistan’s engagement of Southeast Asia should be a standalone pursuit, rather than engaging Southeast Asia as a countermove to India. Doing so would regretfully take Pakistan down an ill-advised path of frustration and futility.

On the whole, Pakistan should be lauded for its efforts to engage Southeast Asia in the past couple of decades. The litmus test right now is for the Khan government to continue the twin momentum of multilateral and bilateral engagements of Southeast Asia, and in so doing, contribute to bringing the regions of South and Southeast Asia together. Imran Khan should also visit more Southeast Asian countries, as he has thus far only visited Malaysia.

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Staying the course allows Pakistan to enhance bilateral political trust and build up a reservoir of goodwill with countries in Southeast Asia. So, in time, when ASEAN is ready to enlarge its current slate of 10 full dialogue partners, Pakistan could find itself at the front of the queue. That would be a watershed moment and fitting climax to Pakistan’s engagement of Southeast Asia.

Sidra Tariq Jamil is a Ph.D. Scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.

Dr. Mustafa Izzuddin is a Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.