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Diplomatic setbacks and realignment

ISLAMABAD: The year 2016 began with a promise – Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s policy of reaching out to Pakistan’s neighbours was not far from paying dividends.

The government had reached an understanding with the country’s two immediate neighbours — Afghanistan and India — to work towards a better cooperative relationship. The moribund dialogue between Pakistan and India was to be resurrected. Meanwhile, Kabul had agreed with Islamabad on reaching out to the Taliban and giving peace a chance.

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But these renewed hopes proved short-lived. In a matter of a few months, Pakistan’s ties with its eastern and western neighbours were back to square one.

The dramatic highs and lows in relations with Kabul and New Delhi summed up how difficult and challenging 2016 was for Pakistan in terms of its foreign policy.

Against this backdrop, however, the biggest takeaway from the year was Pakistan’s ever-increasing relationship with Russia, which helped the government counter India’s relentless campaign to isolate Islamabad globally.

Russia

Such was the dramatic turnaround in ties between the former cold war rivals that Moscow ignored New Delhi’s demand to call off its first-ever joint military exercise with Pakistan in October last year. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried hard to persuade Russia not to have such landmark military drills with Pakistan after an attack in Uri, Indian Occupied Kashmir, in which at least 19 soldiers were killed.

President Vladimir Putin even refused to toe India’s line against Pakistan during the BRICS summit held in Goa, suggesting realignment in this part of the region. Moscow also hosted crucial talks with senior Pakistani and Chinese officials in December to discuss the current impasse in Afghanistan.

Following the unprecedented talks, Russia endorsed Pakistan’s stance that peaceful dialogue between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul was the only way forward. Moscow along with Beijing also agreed to work towards the delisting of certain Taliban leaders from the UN sanctions list in order to pave the way for peace talks.

Russia’s open support to Pakistan’s position on Afghanistan was seen as major diplomatic victory.

India’s growing tilt towards the US is believed to have pushed Russia to open up to Pakistan. China is thought to have been playing a key role in this realignment.

China

The relationship with China is at the heart of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Beijing has been Islamabad’s trusted friend, but this partnership touched new heights after China’s ‘one belt one road’ initiative. As has been the case for the past many years, 2016 also saw continued growth in terms of bilateral ties between Pakistan and China.

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China has backed Pakistan on key issues, including on its bid to become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a move that complicated US efforts seeking India’s entry into the nuclear trading nations without being signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

United States

Although Pakistan’s ties with the United States has remained central to its foreign policy over the past few years, particularly after the 9/11 attacks, despite being ostensible allies in the fight against terrorism, the relationship has never been stable and predictable.

2016 saw a dip in ties between the two countries, especially after a US Congressional panel in March blocked the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan citing its lack of progress to take action against certain militant groups.

The development compelled Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz to admit that relationship with the US had been on ‘downward spiral.’

The future of ties between Pakistan and the US is uncertain with the election of Donald Trump as the next president. While Trump brings with him an element of unpredictability, his maiden telephone conversation with Prime Minister Sharif suggested that Pakistan could explore possibilities of addressing some of the pressing issues with the US under his administration.

India and Afghanistan

As the new year begins, major challenges facing the government are how to deal with India and Afghanistan.

Despite Modi government’s aggressive approach, the current administration is still looking for an opportunity to start some kind of engagement with New Delhi. There is hope that the Modi administration may change its policy after state elections in Punjab and UP in March this year.

Equally daunting will be bringing back relationship with Afghanistan to normalcy. Despite Pakistan’s policy of reaching out to Kabul, the Ghani administration continued to accuse Islamabad of harbouring the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

In a recent regional conference in Amritsar, President Ashraf Ghani joined Indian Premier Modi to blame Pakistan for the current mess in his country. He even asked Islamabad to use the $500 financial assistance announced for Afghanistan to fight the militant groups on Pakistan’s soil.

As the trust deficit widens between the two countries, it may take some time to overcome the serious differences between Kabul and Islamabad on how to put an end to the long running conflict in Afghanistan.

Gulf states

Historically, Pakistan has had strong ties with Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia. But the conflict in Yemen put Pakistan’s relation with key Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, at odds.

However, 2016 saw a gradual improvement in Pakistan’s relations with Riyadh as it joined the 34-nation counterterrorism alliance to fight groups such as Da’ish.

Iran

Pakistan has maintained a delicate balance in its ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia. In March 2016, President Hassan Rouhani paid a state visit to Pakistan indicating that despite many complexities in ties between the two countries, they continue to main high-level contacts. There are reports that Iran may even join the Pak-Russia-China trilateral forum on Afghanistan.

courtesy : express tribune

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