Pakistan’s foreign policy has always been security-centric to quite some extent and traditionally allied mostly westward. However, as revealed in fall 2006, Pakistan sought to better its relations East Ward with South East Asia and East Asia, particularly focusing on ASEAN. This is what Pakistan had termed as its ‘Vision East Asia’. ASEAN is a regional organization that has become economically and politically very relevant to the South East Asian region, and have extended ties with international, regional and economic actors. About one third of the world’s trade routes passes from this particular region and contemporarily it has grasped the international attention for the issue of the South China Sea. Pakistan’s foreign policy has always been subjective to domestic and international influences, which were translated in the implementation of its Vision East Asia as well. Even though alignment with the Eastern bloc would benefit Pakistan a lot in terms of economic connectivity and diplomatic strength, Pakistan for most of the last two decades was not able to capitalize on this policy. However, changes in the domestic and international circumstances, along with opportunities presented by CPEC have once again compelled the state to look towards East.
One of the key reasons for disregarding the Vision East Asia by Pakistan was its preoccupation in the Global War on Terror, especially the involvement in Afghanistan, and country’s instable economic and political outlook. Similarly, Pakistan’s entanglements in the menace of terrorism and its extended reliance on West, India sought an opportunity and established its relations with the Eastern nations. During this time, India was able to make robust relations with the ASEAN states and for the past decade had actively tried influencing them to wane Chinese presence in the South China Sea. However, in the recent years, Pakistan’s Vision East Asia was once again prioritized by the country’s leadership because it is aligned with the developments of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the future prospects of increased connectivity and trade, which is also in line with China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy.
Pakistan’s Vision East Asia encompasses of various goals that are a part of a larger strategy to attain the main goal of ‘establishing closer diplomatic and economic ties with ASEAN’ in hopes of making Pakistan an important trading partner and ally in the South East Asian region. In due course, the key accomplishments of Pakistan in the ‘Vision East Asia’ were strengthening relations with the ASEAN member states and acquiring the status of a sectoral dialogue partner with the organization. There also exist various bilateral agreements between Pakistan and the ASEAN states, such as the ‘Free Trade Agreement’ with Malaysia, and the ‘Mutual Recognition Agreement’ with Indonesia. Other nascent development in the context included the establishment of ASEAN-Pakistan Cooperation Fund and provision of scholarships and educational opportunities to the citizens of certain ASEAN states. The policy also aims to focus on cultural and citizen exchange between the two parties to promote people-people contact and redouble the cultural diplomacy. Economic cooperation and efforts to sign free trade agreements with ASEAN member states such as Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei, Philippines were also prioritized by Pakistan in this policy.
There are various resources in Pakistan that can be valuable in establishing better relations with ASEAN, particularly the rich Buddhist cultural history and ancient sites located in Pakistan. Considering the religious diversity of ASEAN nations, where Islam and Buddhism are two majority religions, it is favorable for Pakistan to capitalize on its cultural and religious resources as a soft power and promote religious tourism towards these Buddhist heritage sites to deepen the bond between the states. Similarly, along with its investments in economic and cultural spheres, the backing of Pakistani diaspora in the ASEAN states to represent their country is also an integral part of this policy. Alternatively, the Vision East Asia policy also propelled to focus outside the ASEAN region, such as towards the Japan and South Korea. In conjunction of Pakistan’s growing cultural connectivity and popularity of East Asian culture in country’s youth, the prospects of pursuing this policy are higher than ever.
One of the main challenges for Pakistan’s Vision East Asia is India’s imperative role and close relationship with the regional economies. Indian influence and cooperation with the countries of South East Asia and East Asia transcends from Pakistan, due to growing economic relations, cultural exchanges and security arrangements. Keeping in mind that Pakistan’s main ally China, with reference to the ongoing developments of CPEC and regional security, Pakistan will have to keep a balance and adopt a rational approach in its dealings with East Asia. This is particularly important because China, although economically important, has various disputes in the region, which is a polarizing juncture for the diplomatic and economic relations. A key reality of why India enjoys such an envious position in the region is country’s active stance in countering Chinese influence and winning over the states that are growing weary of the aggression of the rising power. In lieu of these aforementioned reasons, Pakistan must build closer ties with the ASEAN states in hopes of balancing out its support for China on its maritime disputes in the region, and at the same time, country should balance its relation with Japan and also take advantage of the economic opportunities in the region.
Developments of the CPEC has provided Pakistan with a lucrative opportunity to rekindle its Vision East Asia and implement the policy in a way that it should be more favorable than the last time. Earlier this year the incumbent government hinted towards strengthening the economic cooperation with states such as South Korea, Singapore, Japan, and Malaysia, and expressed its intentions towards upgrading Pakistan’s sectoral partnership with ASEAN to a full partnership instead. In 2019, Pakistan and Japan signed a Memorandum of Cooperation for ‘specific skilled workers’ that created a job market for Pakistani workers in Japan. CPEC will help Pakistan make better connections with East Asia with the establishment of special economic zones and under the conditions that Pakistan will be allowed to use some of the Chinese ports for trading, as Nepal does, which will cut down cost of transportation and increase fluidity in the country’s economics. CPEC will help increase economic cooperation and help Pakistan widen its range to East Asian markets as well.
One of the important aspects of Pakistan’s Vision East Asia, that is often ignored, is the ASEAN and other prospective targets in East Asia are responsible and developed economies with a steady trade flow and economic functioning. Being a full time trade partner with these states makes imperative that Pakistan must first actively deal with its domestic issues and ensure political stability in order to attract FDI and upkeep its bilateral agreements with other regional states. In addition, to counter the India’s upper hand in the region, Pakistan should capitalize on all of its resources for economic and diplomatic cooperation with the region. Since Islamic militancy is an issue faced by most of the ASEAN nations, Pakistan could offer its extensive experience to the regional countries for counter-insurgency training. The scope for public diplomacy with South Korea and Japan is also capacious as Pakistani youth is an active consumer of Korean and Japanese pop culture and actively associated with it. This will help form a good base for people-people interaction and cultural exchange. Promotion of Pakistan’s Buddhist historical sites and heritage would also help promote better relations with East Asia and increase tourism.
Pakistan has an abundance of resources that country can use for its Vision East Asia policy, including cultural and public diplomacy, increased economic cooperation, stronger diplomatic relations etc. The current progress on the CPEC progress has given Pakistan an opportunity to rekindle its Vision East Asia policy and fully exploit its potential. The policymakers envisaged the ‘Vision East Asia’ as a policy for economic diplomacy but with the changing geopolitical circumstances of the region; now, the country must embark on this policy for its strategic advantage, especially by considering the increasing Indian presence in the region. Henceforward, if Pakistan adopts a multi-faceted approach to its Vision East Asia policy, focusing on both the tangible and intangible aspects of cooperation, the country will indubitably meet its foreign policy aspirations with ASEAN nations and East Asian region.