Pakistan’s Foreign Policy in Transition: Trends and Challenges

The evolving dynamics of regional and global power politics poses complex and interlocked challenges for Pakistan’s foreign policy. In order to understand these multifaceted challenges, there is a need to understand the foreign policy outlook of Pakistan in the global environment and how bigger geopolitical picture effects Pakistan’s foreign policy choices. Three key features of the global environment are pertinent for this understanding, where the first one is the unsettling transitionary phase of the covid-19 amplifying the volatility of the international system which was already going through a global and regional strategic flux. Secondly, there is an ongoing fundamental power shift squashing the notions of multilateralism and tech wars between dominant powers. While, third challenging feature for Pakistan’s unhampered pursuit of its foreign policy is the rise of populism and unilateral actions by these populist leaders, which is undermining the rules-based international order and deifying the international law in many cases.

Another hindrance the foreign policy ambitions of Pakistan, and even other states, will face in the post-covid world will be the inward focus of other countries. This is obvious because all pandemic stricken economies will focus on the domestic issues and economic recovery, which will ultimately shape their foreign relations and preferences of the states in pursuing their foreign policy goals.

There is a ray of hope that the new US administration, Biden Presidency, will take measures to restore the world’s faith in multilateralism and liberal institutionalism, which provides Pakistan with an ample opportunity to pursue its foreign policy goal of economic diplomacy. In terms of regional trade prospects for Pakistan, the Biden administration will certainly pursue the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) which may lead to uplifting economic sanctions on Pakistan’s western bordering country, allowing the country to extend its economic ties. There is an opportunity for Pakistan to overcome its negative trade balance with Iran while also diversify its energy imports, like oil and gas, and export its processed and value-added industrial items to the country’s western neighbour. However, the Biden administration will more likely shadow its predecessor, Trump’s pressing stance with China, maybe with a gentle slant, which will ultimately change the worldview about investment in the Chinese economic partnering country like Pakistan. Pakistan is sought as an opportune investment hub of foreign direct investments due to the economic potential and especially after the mega-developments taken under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). However, the US-China strife was swaying the economies interested in investing in Pakistan due to the expansive influence of the US on the global economy. Similarly, there is a possibility that Biden administration will take a softer approach towards projecting India as a counter-weight against China, allowing the Chinese influence to grow and rendering Pakistan as a more tempting investment spot in the region due to its strategic geographical location and balanced ties with regional economies.

A fair-minded analysis of the changing dynamic of global and regional power hints the resurgence of strategic tensions between global powers, which is a greater challenge for Pakistan to pursue its foreign policy objectives autonomously. The friction between globally leading economies like the US and China, and the US drawing on India for containing the Chinese rise while providing it with the technological and military gains is a bone of contention for Islamabad. Similarly, the ever-increasing involvement of the US in Middle Eastern nation’s foreign policy, like the normalization drive of Arabian Gulf nations with Israel and Tehran-Riyadh binary, can pose a challenge to Pakistan’s pursuit of its independent foreign policy.

In-terms of short-term or immediate challenges for Pakistan’s foreign policy in the volatile and fluctuating region, there are four hotspots Islamabad should be considering while reviewing or reordering the country’s foreign policy.

First is the navigation of US-China standoff where the US is consorting with India as a regional partner and projecting it as a counterweight against China. Although the similarities between China and India like humongous population, rapid industrialization and digitization, collectively possessing more than half of Asia’s GDP, and both nations rank among the largest militaries of the world, the contemporary spat of US over China is its challenging position in the economic and geopolitical realm. China increased its sphere of influence through its extensive export base, mega developmental schemes, and extension of the country’s economic tentacles to almost all parts of the world except North America. While the economist projected the economic rise of China at the beginning of 21st century, the US-China strife formally began in Obama administration when the US accused its Chinese counterpart of intellectual theft and illegal transfer of technology. To overcome this imbalance, India was chosen as a counterweight by the US by offering modern technology and strategic partnership; apart from intriguing India to achieve its regional hegemonic designs. Here the role of Pakistan is pivotal because before India, Pakistan remained the regional strategic partner and beneficiary of the US benevolence and with the changing political dynamics, Pakistan opted to forge an ever-closer partnership with China. This leaves India in two-front threat and that both having nuclear deterrent capability while one, China, having the permanent status in the UN General Assembly. Pakistan always pursued a foreign policy of neutrality and balancing but the strong-arming policy of the US towards Pakistan, especially in stamping Pakistan for the US defeat in Afghanistan pushed Islamabad away from Washington towards Beijing. However, with the new US administration taking charge, and especially with the first US president knowing Pakistan than any of his predecessors, there is hope that relations will bolster and move towards strategic stability, and new US administration will more likely pursue an even-handed policy in South Asian region rather than a partisan one.

The second short-term challenge Pakistan is more likely to face in pursuit of an unfettered foreign policy is the political development in Afghanistan and the establishment of a peaceful order in the country. Pakistan was the most vital and most affected actor in the Afghan crisis, as the country has stayed at frontline combatant in the global war on terror and incurred huge economic losses amounting for $126billion, along with loss of more than 65000 human lives. Pakistan had none other option than joining the US in 2001 when the global war on terror started in Afghanistan. Being a developing economy, the country’s economy further obliterated when it had to host 1.4million refugees and more than 1.2million people displaced internally. After all these sacrifices and patronizing Pakistan’s foreign policy, Trump administration asked Pakistan to “do more” and suspended $900 million pledged as security aid to Pakistan. There was a tacit understanding among all involved actors that there is not a military solution to Afghanistan and the quandary could only be resolved through socio-economic development of the country, which is why Trump administration expedited the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and supported Pakistan’s deep-rooted involvement in the Afghan peace process. The US war on terror had left Pakistan with a host of problems before and if an agreement has not been reached this time in Afghanistan, it will be the start of a new phase of chaos and disorder in the region.

According to the opinion of Maliha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to US and UN, there are prospects that Biden administration will slow down the troop withdrawal but they should understand the pivotal role Pakistan had played and can play in the stabilizing the country. The new US administration will surely recognize the importance of Pakistan in the Afghanistan peace-building, political transition and economic development of the landlocked country, as Trump administration acknowledged.

The third most vexing issue for Pakistan’s foreign policy is its relations with India and the resolution of prolonged Kashmir dispute. It is understandable that reconciliation between both nuclear-armed South Asian powers will lead to regional and global geopolitical stability and bolster the trade in the region, but the incumbent populist and religiously polarized regime of India had left no option for dialogue or reconciliation. History is evident that Pakistan never turned down or sabotaged the dialogue process and always welcomed the arbitration through the involvement of a third party for the resolution of Kashmir’s territorial dispute; however, India never withstood its bilateral agreements or UN resolutions to which the country is a party. Moreover, the grave human rights violation of in Indian held Kashmir, its unilateral and illegal move to annex Kashmir through revocation of Article 370, violations of Line of Control (LoC) and communication blackout in the Kashmir region has left no option for Pakistan to hold a dialogue before these problems are resolved. India’s cover action inside Pakistan to destabilize the country domestically and to tarnish the image of the country in the international realm through spreading disinformation and terror controversy reflects the disposition of India as the troublemaker in the region. Even though it is in favour of Pakistan to hold dialogue and extend its economic ties with its eastern neighbours but Kashmir being the pivot of Pakistan’s foreign policy and India’s illegal occupation and grave human rights violation, as highlighted by the UN, OIC and other human rights organizations, impede the prospects of reconciliation.

Another short-term challenge, most-probably becoming the medium-term, for the foreign policy of Pakistan is the geopolitical turmoil of the Middle East. Being predominantly a Muslim majority region sharing borders and religious affinity with Pakistan, the country always enjoyed fraternal ties with all Middle Eastern states. The large diaspora of Pakistan in the Arabian Gulf Nations, which is behind the infrastructural development of KSA and UAE, is a living example of the cordial relations. Similarly, the strategic ties, defence partnerships, diplomatic support and economic associations reflect the success of Pakistan’s foreign policy in the region; however, the increasing Indian and Israeli involvement in the Middle Eastern affairs is more likely jeopardize the foreign policy of Pakistan. Like Pakistan, India also has a large diaspora in the Arabian Gulf nations, sending a huge sum of remittances back to the country and also engaged in the business activities in these gulf nations. This leverage has been exploited by the incumbent regime of India for their foreign policy endeavours and gathering diplomatic support in the supranational forums, especially against Pakistan’s case of Kashmir.

In terms of interstate rivalries of Middle Eastern nations, Pakistan has always pursued a balanced policy. Being the only Islamic nation with nuclear capability, valiant military and extended relations with superpowers, Pakistan had remained in an advantageous position in the policy of Middle Eastern states; however, with India strong-arming the Arab nations over Kashmir, Pakistan was compelled towards an emerging Muslim bloc comprising of Turkey and Malaysia (both non-Arab Muslim states) upsetting the Arabian counterparts. Although Pakistan has been able to walk a tight rope by keeping a balance between Tehran-Riyadh binary and even declined the request its spiritual lighthouse KSA to send Pakistani troops to Yemen, the prevalent US and Israel backed regional strife can create hurdles for Pakistan ensure its customary approach towards the ME region.

Similarly, the normalcy of Arab-Israeli ties hint a peril to Pakistan’s foreign policy objectives in the region and it is due to Pakistan’s unwavering stance towards the plight of Palestinian’s illegal territorial annexation by Israel, whereas the Arabian counterparts now have a preference of achieving tech supremacy and economic diversification, provided by Israel.

The global trending economic partnerships like Indo-Pacific, BRI and KASA-1000 and Eurasia are also significant for Pakistan’s foreign policy because now Pakistan is having a crystal clear focus of economic development and the more such multilateral forums Pakistan will join the merrier it will be for the country. However, the problem Pakistan will face while engaging in these forums is the disguised agendas of these collations, such as Indo-Pacific is also suspected to be the US-backed geopolitical alliance against China, similarly, the Eurasian Union is also reproved by the western powers as the hidden agenda of Russia. To gratify the economic and diplomatic needs of the country, these forums should be organic, regional and impartial in terms of geopolitics whilst offering welfare for the people, and not be imposed by the extra-territorial powers as instruments of their foreign policy. Pakistan had already suffered a lot from being a proxy to the superpowers in their domination agendas and at the moment, it is pertinent to take this into account before formally becoming a party to any of these collations.

The current trends of Pakistan’s foreign policy show a gratis inclination towards its all-weather friend neighbour, China, and it is a strategic choice of Pakistan. Since the 1950s, China has remained an extremely important player in the country’s foreign policy, initially based on the extensive cooperation in national security; the two nations are now closer than ever due to economic interests and convergence of their foreign policy endeavours. Pakistan seeks its economic prosperity with China and the recent mega-developmental scheme BRI and CPEC; it has become a win-win situation for both.

Apart from the country or region-specific foreign policy challenges, Pakistan has always remained an influential actor in the multilateral, regional and global supranational forums like UN, OIC, SAARC and SCO etc. Albeit a developing economy, Pakistan had always contributed and shadowed the developed countries as an active member in the diplomatic initiatives like disarmament bodies and global development forums. Pakistan is an active advocate of UN Sustainable Development Goals, global climate action like Paris agreement, human rights, and access to water.

Ever since its independence, the foreign policy of Pakistan has faced numerous challenges including hostility from neighbours, territorial and water disputes, balancing acts from regional states, entanglement in the stratagem of superpowers, and most significantly, the post 9/11 perusal of an autonomous foreign policy. Domestic factors like ethnic and social issues, depreciating political culture and economic instability also acted as an impediment in the pursuit of the unfettered foreign policy of the country. However, the country cherished cordial relations with regional and global powers like the USA, China, Iran, Central Asian Republics, Gulf States, and Turkey.

Pakistan’s Foreign Policy seeks to protect, promote and advance Pakistan’s national interests in the comity of nations. The guiding principle of Pakistan’s foreign policy remained intact with the vision of the country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah: “Our objective should be peace within and peace without. We want to live peacefully and maintain cordial and friendly relations with our immediate neighbours and with the world at large. We have no aggressive designs against anyone. We stand by the United Nations Charter and will gladly make our contribution to the peace and prosperity of the world.”



The onset of Imran Khan’s political party in the power led to the reevaluation and revamping of the country’s domestic and foreign policy. Economic independence and inclusive economic vision was the underlying principle of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) manifesto, “Road to Naya Pakistan”. The new government, with a vow to pull the country from the shackles of poverty and vicious debt cycles, firstly focused on the economic recovery through economic diplomacy to usher the country into a new era of stability and progress. Prime Minister Imran Khan urged the diplomatic missions of Pakistan abroad to play a proactive role in paving the way for foreign investment in the country. Under his supervision, the establishment of an “Economic Outreach Apex Committee” also highlights the country’s focus on economic diplomacy, as this apex body will work for bolstering bilateral trade ties and exploring the potential in the economic field. The incumbent government had also undertaken the mission of providing a safe and stable environment to the foreign investors in the country by improving the ease of doing business index and stabilizing the overall economic outlook of the country. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, in an interactive session with the apex trade body, Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) announced lining the economic diplomacy initiative with FPCCI and pledged to address the grievances and problems of the local industry to ameliorate the condition of trade and industry of the country. In lieu of promoting the economic diplomacy of Pakistan, the leadership is singing free trade agreements with other countries like China and organizing trade-expos to boost the exports of the country along with attracting foreign investments. Similarly, there are prospects of revitalizing the economic linkages with ASEAN states, Eurasian Union and the Central Asian States. Owing to the multipronged egalitarian approach of the incumbent government of economic diplomacy, Pakistan has been able to capitalize on its foreign relations to accrue maximum benefits and minimize its losses.



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About Awais Siddique 12 Articles
Assistant Editor TAT and Digital Editor at Melange International Magazine