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Pakistan’s Increasingly Strained Relations with the West

By Prof. Tridivesh Singh Maini

Pakistan’s ties with the US have witnessed a downward slope as a result of its increasing proximity to China in recent years. Pakistan PM, Imran Khan’s decision to visit the US   amid  the Russia-Ukraine crisis, and its decision to not support a US sponsored resolution against Russia for its aggression vis-à-vis Ukraine  have led to a further deterioration in ties. The Pakistan PM’s strong response to a letter from Western envoys which asked Pakistan to vote in favour of the UNGA resolution, received a strong response from Khan. It remains to be seen if recent developments will lead to a further deterioration in ties with the European Union (EU) which has already been considering removal of the GSP (Generalised System of Preferences) — which had been granted to Pakistan in 2014.  

Pakistan PM Imran Khan who landed in Russia on the eve (February 23, 2022) of Russia’s military aggression vis-à-vis Ukraine was critical of  a letter on March 1, 2022,  from the heads of 22 diplomatic missions in Pakistan( including those from EU states) which urged Pakistan to support a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. 

During a rally on March 6, 2022, the Pakistani PM criticised his predecessors for not speaking out against drone attacks due to fear of their assets abroad being frozen. The Pakistan PM said that instead of benefiting in any way from supporting the War on Terror, Pakistan had lost numerous lives, and had also been bruised economically. 

He said that the Pakistan Tehrek E Insaf  (PTI) government  wanted good relations with all countries and did not want to be part of any camp. ‘We seek friendship with everyone’,   said Khan . Adopting an aggressive tone,  Khan had also said that Pakistan would not kowtow to anyone and also asked the European Union Ambassadors whether they had written any letter to India.

During his meeting with Putin on February 24, 2022 (the first by any overseas leader after Russia’s attack on Ukraine) Khan had said that he was in favour of resolving the crisis by diplomatic means. After landing in Moscow, Khan had remarked 

‘What a time I have come…so much excitement!’

Imran Khan’s recent visit to Russia, the posture adopted by Pakistan vis-à-vis the Russia-Ukraine conflict and his aggressive response to western envoys reiterates the changing nature of Pakistan’s foreign policy, which at one time was pro-west, but has now moved far closer to China and Russia. Ties with the US have deteriorated, though both sides have had to work closely on Afghanistan ( though after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, Pakistan’s leverage vis-à-vis the US has further reduced) and senior officials in Khan’s government have been pushing for improving economic ties and not restricting the relationship merely to security issues. In December 2021, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi while commenting on the Pakistan-US relationship had said:

“In line with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s vision for a shift from geopolitics to geo-economics, we want a relationship with the US that is in sync with our changed priorities.”

While it was expected that the Biden Administration’s policy towards Pakistan would be less transactional, ties have been strained. Pakistan’s decision not to attend the Democracy Summit and Khan’s recent Russia visit has only further increased tensions (some in the Imran Khan led PTI government are even accusing the US  for  the current political flux in the country and supporting the No Confidence Motion (NCM) against the Imran Khan government). It would be pertinent to point out that Biden shared cordial ties with both Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and  former  President Asif Ali Zardari, while many in the PTI government were actually batting for a Trump win in the 2020 Presidential election. Khan himself had praised Trump for his ‘unorthodox’ thinking on many issues.

The latest letter from western envoys,  and the response from Khan could result in a downward slide of economic ties between Pakistan and other western countries, especially the EU. In 2020, the  EU was Pakistan’s second largest trading partner accounting for over 14% of Pakistan’s total trade and accounting for well over 1/4th  of Pakistan’s exports (28%). Textiles and clothing account for 3/4th of Pakistan’s exports to  the  EU.

In May 2021,  the  EU had adopted a resolution calling for reviewing its trade linkages and withdrawing GSP (Generalised System of Preferences) due to Human Rights Violations, and Pakistan’s blasphemy law (under which anyone disrespecting Islam can be sentenced to death if convicted). EU had also appealed to Pakistan to free a Christian couple who were on death row since 2014. In September 2021, the EU had added more pre-requisites for being eligible for the GSP. 

During the 6th round of EU-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue (held in Brussels in December), the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of European Commission Josep Borrell expressed concern over the human rights situation in Pakistan  EU had granted the GSP to Pakistan in 2014. The GSP slashes tariffs for goods coming from developing countries to zero percent. At a time when Pakistan’s economy is facing serious challenges,  it would like to avoid a downslide in economic ties with EU. Khan’s remarks also come at a time when the global watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to keep Pakistan on its grey list and to address lacunae in its financial system, especially with regard to “complex money laundering investigations and prosecutions” will also pose serious challenges to the country, and it clearly has its task cut out. It remains to be seen how the Pakistani PM facing domestic political challenges will balance his country’s economic interests with its changed foreign policy orientation.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is Assistant Professor, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana.

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