The way Pakistan is heading

With anti-US sentiment rampant in Pakistan, the question on everyone’s mind, in both South Asia and outside, is which country is Pakistan attracted towards, not just in economic and defence terms, but at the level of government and also the general public at large.

There is no clear answer to this question as Pakistan, which is in an economic mess is courting every country, and, to the credit of the Public Private Partnership [PPP] government, it has been extremely astute in juggling its foreign policy. Similarly, Pakistan is not a monolith and there are diverse opinions and strands of thought, something the media tends to overlook.

One may, however, give a broad overview of Pakistan’s external ties with the outside world in terms of politics and ‘soft power’.

In the political and economic sphere, Pakistan’s first priority seems to be China with which the country has shared close economic and defence ties since long. One thing, however, where China is not particularly strong, particularly in comparison to the US, just as yet is ‘soft power’.

Beijing too perhaps realises that foreign investment in Pakistan and strategic convergences are not enough for increasing it’s clout and has begun to realise the relevance of soft power for a while. In an effort to lure more Pakistani students it has increased the number of scholarships for Pakistani students who want to study in China. In fact, only last week, a team of the China Foundation for Peace and Development [CFPD], which was visiting Pakistan, headed by Secretary General  Xu Zhensui announced that it would double the number of scholarships for Pakistani students of needy families who are seeking vocational training via the Benazir Income Support Programme [BISP]. BISP is the government’s flagship programme for women’s empowerment and poverty removal. The introduction of the Chinese language in schools in Punjab and Sindh is also aimed at furthering ties at a people to people level.
Yet on a recent visit to Pakistan, it was interesting to talk to university students who confessed that in spite of the average Pakistani being anti-US, Uncle Sam is still a favorable destination for a large section of the youth for educational purposes and even for migrating. While Pakistan might be a nightmare for the US, the American dream still appeals to a large section of the Pakistani youth and China is still lagging behind in this context.

Amongst other important countries for Pakistan, Saudi Arabia too is high on the priority list, especially for conservative sections who believe that Islam is an important bond between Pakistan and Riyadh. But sections of the youth have begun to state that Islam by itself cannot be a bond and not only is Saudi Arabia culturally different, but it has not really bailed out Pakistan during times of economic crises as it should have.

Another country with whom Pakistan’s ties are improving is Turkey.  Firstly, Turkey is investing heavily in Pakistan especially in Punjab where it is helping in the setting up of a metro bus system. Second, Pak-Turk schools have been popular for long and their popularity is increasing especially amongst the elite. Third, for those who believe that Pakistan should move towards a liberal Islamic model, they don’t need to look beyond Istanbul. Finally, some also believe that Turkey is a useful model for Pakistan, since the democratic regime has tamed the army.The problem with Turkey, however, is that it can only appeal to certain segments of Pakistani society and it’s political model may not be acceptable to all.

Finally of course, there are those who feel that Pakistan’s salvation lies in a better relationship with India not only due to cultural similarities and a shared past but more importantly the economic benefits of doing business. But with the unpredictable relationship between both the countries and the intransigence of certain hardliners in both countries, there is some distance to cover before Indo-Pak ties reach such a level.

So what are the conclusions we can draw from all the above trends?

Firstly, Pakistan’s external relations are confusing and arguably similar to a degree to the pattern of street names in Islamabad with streets being named after Chinese, Turkish and Saudi leaders.

Second, perhaps New Delhi which is much closer – at least geographically – to Islamabad would do well to take a leaf out of China’s note book and at a time when things are improving between both countries, maybe look at cashing in on its ‘soft power’ which it already enjoys vis-à-vis Pakistan in terms of its culture and movies, by seriously thinking of more student exchanges and even student visas for youth who are keen to study in India as this will help in removing a lot of misconceptions.

Finally, it is time that Pakistan began to acknowledge its South Asian identity and its relevance for the sub-continent. Rather than trying to integrate into regions it does not belong to it looks inward and begins to appreciate its
heritage, and not obliterate it apart from giving greater recognition to its own philosophers like Allama Iqbal and poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz whose message is relevant for the whole of South Asia. In this sense, the Lok Virsa museum in Islamabad, which was set up in 2002 for showcasing Pakistan’s history and identity is a commendable effort since it recognises the joint history of India and Pakistan, while also sending an unequivocal message that Pakistan is an integral part of South Asia.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based columnist and independent foreign policy analyst.
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