When Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan lashed out at the European Union and Western envoys who urged him to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, asking him if they thought Pakistan was their “slave” and asking why similar demands had not been made of India, he cemented a precedent that had long been a hallmark of Pakistani politics.
This characteristic was not the long-standing rivalry against India, nor even the hypocrisy of Western leaders and their standards, but it was the phenomenon of neutrality in regional disputes or conflicts.
Khan summed it up perfectly when he said in the same speech that “We are friends with Russia, and we are also friends with America; we are friends with China and with Europe; we are not in no field”. Pakistan, he stressed, will remain neutral and work to end the war in Ukraine.
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Over the decades, Pakistan has managed to avoid being drawn into regional conflicts or quagmires that mire it in rival geopolitical spheres of influence. There are, of course, scattered exceptions such as its military assistance to Arab states in their wars against Israel, or the transfer of arms to the Bosniaks during the conflict in the Balkans.
One of the main reasons for this may be the fact that it already has a long-standing rivalry – both covert and open everywhere – with neighboring India, which has been an existential problem for Islamabad. But it’s also because staying neutral has always been a key survival strategy for the developing nation of Pakistan.
Even his involvement in the US-led ‘war on terror’ was – apart from a recent change in leadership – largely due to enormous pressure to comply and cooperate with the campaign within the policy framework. “with us or against us” of the Bush administration, or Western nations may have confirmed their distrust of Pakistan as a “state sponsor of terrorism”.
In other words, the country’s decision to align itself with the United States — and now China — was based on practical realism and a tacit acceptance that its very survival was at stake.
Neutrality under threat
This dynamic does not mean that Islamabad has always been a victim of its own situation, but its deeply military-dominated establishment has mastered the art of using this position as a means to serve the country’s own interests.
As former CIA official Douglas London described it, he watched “Pakistani officials masterfully execute a campaign of denial and deception that skillfully manipulated senior U.S. defense officials, diplomats, and government delegations. Visiting Congress. counterparts and found them reasonable, charming and accommodating”.
Aside from the country’s pivot between America and China, its neutral stance has been mostly observed when it comes to disputes in the Middle East.
Pakistan’s refusal to take sides in the misadventures of the Gulf states in their region is a prime example, with its neutrality seen during the Saudi-led blockade and boycott of Qatar in 2017 and Operation of the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen.
Despite Riyadh’s request and insistence that Islamabad provide forces to the coalition, Pakistan has repeatedly refused to do so. That was, at least, before the army decided to join the Saudi-led “Islamic Military Coalition Against Terrorism” – headed by the former Pakistani army chief of staff, the General Raheel Sharif, no less – and to indirectly help the Kingdom by providing training and advice. .
In the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran too, Pakistan has tried to maintain a balance, reiterating the importance of diplomatic relations and security cooperation with its two allies and dodging their attempts to pit Islamabad against each other. to the other.
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Even when it comes to Syria, Pakistan has maintained relations with the war-torn and pariah regime of Bashar Al-Assad throughout the decade, reflecting the realism – and perhaps anti-colonial stance – from which he and the military establishment operate.
This balance, however, appears to have declined over the past year. According to credible reports, Islamabad is coming down hard on Tehran over apparent revelations that Iranian intelligence services are funding and assisting Baloch separatist militants who carry out cross-border attacks from neighboring Iran.
At the same time, Pakistan is getting closer and closer to Saudi Arabia. After a tumultuous few years in which relations between the two men reached an all-time low, due to the Pakistani government’s demand that the Kingdom do more to support an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit on Kashmir issue, Riyadh finally revived its treasury. and oil support to Islamabad in October last year.
Since then, relations between the two appear to have reset and improved, with cooperation progressing in recent months in the form of recruitment of skilled workers, joint mechanized training exercises and intelligence sharing.
The establishment against Khan
Many attribute the rescue of Pakistani relations with Saudi Arabia to a legacy of the military-led establishment – otherwise known as the “deep state” – and this is where the vision and policies of the Islamic Republic become more complex, because this entity and the country’s civil governments have often had divergent interests.
The establishment aims to maintain diplomacy and neutrality on the world stage, maintaining the status quo. According to media in Pakistan and rival India, he sees Prime Minister Imran Khan and his civilian government as an upstart who risks ruining decades of diplomatic foundations and relations with countries in the region and beyond. .
This is why, following the diplomatic fallout with Saudi Arabia in 2020, it was the Chief of the Defense Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, himself who traveled to the Kingdom to attempt to restore relations.
This is part of the military domain: not only defending the country abroad, but also constantly orienting its foreign policy on the path of stability. And this steering can be done through a variety of means – from the outright takeover of civilian governments to the simple application of charm offensives launched against foreign diplomats.
According to the Pakistani opposition currently trying to oust him, the establishment’s apparent mistrust of Khan’s vision and diplomatic abilities is also the reason why the military is withdrawing its support or remaining. neutral as to who to support politically.
More importantly, the military would like to maintain relations with its former ally, the United States, while establishing ties with China. As a source close to the military – who wished to remain anonymous – told me it “wants to stay with America” and have China as a sort of co-guarantor. Such is the phenomenon of neutrality and balance that is so deeply embedded in the political psyche of Islamabad.
Amid a changing political landscape, new conflicts on the world stage and the continued struggle for influence between the military establishment and the civilian government, Pakistan may find it increasingly difficult to maintain its neutrality in coming years.
From Iran to Saudi Arabia, from Western nations to Russia or China, attempts to lure the country into a sphere of influence will only intensify. While elements in Pakistan – both Khan and the military in their own ways – openly aim to maintain the status quo in its foreign policy, its struggle will be to prevent circumstances from forcing it to take sides.
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The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.