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Russia and China in Pakistan’s New Foreign Policy

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When examining the foreign policies and decision-making processes of states, we see that certain ideological, cultural and historical factors are effective. In this sense, when we look at the historical impression, ideological orientation and identity structure of Pakistan’s foreign policy, it is understood that it cannot stick to a single axis in the international system. Historically, Pakistan has been described as an axis country in the orbit of the West, as it took part in the Baghdad Pact established in 1955 under the leadership of the British and subsequently cooperated with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) led by the United States (USA). Ideologically, its Islamic identity has led it to close cooperation with Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

When considered in terms of state administration, Pakistan, while preserving its Islamic character, has kept up with a Western-centered bureaucratic management model and has started to follow an Islamic World-Western trend in foreign policy. However, it has been argued that with the involvement of China in the Belt-Road Project, Pakistan started to experience an axis shift in foreign policy. It is also possible to base this on geopolitical reasons. It has been in Pakistan’s interest to cooperate with China to balance it against India. Besides the economic benefits, Pakistan has become China’s largest arms customer. Geopolitically, India receives support from the USA; Pakistan, on the other hand, created the Chinese balance. Therefore, the beginning of moves that will disrupt the balance in the power struggle of the USA, England, Russia and China in the Pakistan-India axis; Pakistan has been getting closer to China.

Another breaking point in Pakistan’s foreign policy is the Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan. The USA withdrew its support for Pakistan, as it saw Pakistan as responsible for this. Thus, few options emerged that Pakistan could pursue in foreign policy. The first is to return to the US axis. The second is to focus entirely on China. The third is to get support from England. The fourth and last resort is to get closer to Russia. Pakistan has tried all of these. First, it tried to mend his relations with the United States. Islamabad has even informed American officials that it might give up Beijing to regain Washington.[1] Then it wanted to contact England. However, in this process, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Moscow and showed that he could get closer to Russia. At this point, Pakistan’s efforts to get closer with Russia became another breaking point. Because Russia is one of the biggest rivals of England and Khan lost England after his visit to Moscow. As a result, Pakistan is left with nothing but Russia and China options.

These pursuits in foreign policy have also been reflected in domestic politics. In this sense, the Pakistan Army has taken action to protect the national interests of the country and the traditional Western line in foreign policy. The army began to put pressure on Khan, made the government’s coalition partners move to the opposition, and eventually, the government was overthrown with a democratic method. Here, Khan claimed that the USA was involved in the internal affairs of the country. In other words, he linked these developments to foreign powers.

In fact, what happened in Pakistan is related to both foreign and domestic political factors. In short, the foreign policy orientations of both groups were as influential as the Government-Army relations. For example, it is known that the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shahbaz Sharif, has good relations with the Army. As the government-military harmony has been achieved, Pakistan may return to its ideological, identity and historical lines in foreign policy. This is restoring relations with the USA and England, protecting economic interests in relations with China, and abandoning rapprochement with Russia. Re-balancing foreign policy will not be enough for the West. At the same time, Western powers will ask the new Pakistani government to take a tough stance against Russia regarding the Ukraine War. The Sharif Government has given messages that the economic interests in relations with China will be protected in the new period. Apart from this, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a congratulatory message to Sharif and wished for the development of bilateral relations.

To remind that, Russia claimed that the USA punished Khan for his visit to Moscow and tried to overthrow the government.[2] Again in this process, the Pakistan Army condemned Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.[3] In other words, what the USA could not do through Khan, it did through the Pakistan Army. In other words, shortly before Khan was overthrown, the Army almost took over the power itself and started talking about foreign policy. With the arrival of the Sharif Government, the Pakistan Army will return to its former mission.

It remains to be seen how Russia and China will respond to the “realignment” in Pakistan. The Pakistan Army has shown its “red line”. It seems that the “red line” is definitely not getting closer to China. Because the Pakistan Army is already getting huge arms aid from China. The line that crosses the border here is to get closer to Russia. At this point, it can be understood which axis the Pakistan Army is closer to. The biggest competitor of the USA is China. Britain’s biggest rival is Russia. Since 2013, Pakistan’s rapprochement with China has not been a problem. However, Khan’s visit to Moscow at the beginning of the Ukrainian War created a serious problem. So it’s not the USA that’s causing trouble here; It could be England. Therefore, it can be said that England will determine the general trend in Pakistan’s foreign policy from now on. From this point of view, while the development trend in relations with China continues; A more distant line with Russia can be adopted.

Sharif has already signaled that he will implement a constructive foreign policy. The Prime Minister of Pakistan said that the Kashmir Issue should be resolved first in order to develop relations with India. In addition, he sent moderate messages to China. However, he will be much more careful in his communication with Russia. Because the new administration in Pakistan should not be expected to follow the line of the Army. Based on all this information, the new balance of power in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-India axis could be as follows:

According to the first scenario, Pakistan will try to follow a moderate policy towards India and this will bring about a rapprochement between China-India-Pakistan. The critical point here is; Pakistan will follow a policy in favor of more tension in Kashmir and China will continue to support Pakistan in the Kashmir Issue. In this case, the effort to get closer to India will be nothing more than an “empty expectation”. In addition, Pakistan will not want more crises related to its neighbours Afghanistan and India in order to gain the trust of the USA.

According to the second scenario, Pakistan will take action to complete China’s economic projects, and this will bring more cooperation and rapprochement with China. However, considering the US factor, Pakistan may prefer to stay away from establishing such an alliance with China.

According to the third option, Pakistan will completely enter the axis of the USA and begin to move away from China. For this to happen, the United States will need to present Pakistan with a project that will replace the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Otherwise, China’s cooperation with Pakistan will continue from where it left off.

According to the fourth possibility, Pakistan will continue to seek ways of cooperation with Russia. In this case, the Sharif government is not expected to last long. In other words, the possibility of early elections and coups will continue to be discussed. Therefore, it is estimated that Pakistan will stay away from Russia in the short and medium term.

As a result, Russia and China will remain as alternative axes in Pakistan’s foreign policy. Rather than being an axis country, Pakistan; will focus on pursuing a policy in favor of multipolarity. Currently, Pakistan has started to implement a multi-vector foreign policy. The next step will be to transition to multipolarity. It is estimated that Pakistan will receive the support of Russia and China in this transition process.

[1] “Pakistan Falls Back to China After Snubbed by USA, Had Offered to Scrap CPEC with China if US Gives A Similar Deal but Was Refused”, Opindia, https://www.opindia.com/2022/02/pakistan-plays-to-the-chinese-tune-after-being-ignored-by-the-us/, (Date of Accession: 07.04.2022).

[2] “US ‘Punishing’ Pakistan PM Imran Khan for Moscow Visit, Says Russia”, Wio News, https://www.wionews.com/world/us-punishing-pakistan-pm-imran-khan-for-moscow-visit-says-russia-468951, (Date of Accession: 13.04.2022).

[3] “Pakistan Army Chief Blasts Russia’s Aggression Against Ukraine”, VOA News, https://www.voanews.com/a/pakistan-army-chief-blasts-russia-aggression-against-ukraine/6512372.html, (Date of Accession: 13.04.2022).

Dr. Cenk TAMER
Dr. Cenk TAMER
Dr. Cenk Tamer graduated from Sakarya University, Department of International Relations in 2014. In the same year, he started his master's degree at Gazi University, Department of Middle Eastern and African Studies. In 2016, Tamer completed his master's degree with his thesis titled "Iran's Iraq Policy after 1990", started working as a Research Assistant at ANKASAM in 2017 and was accepted to Gazi University International Relations PhD Program in the same year. Tamer, whose areas of specialization are Iran, Sects, Sufism, Mahdism, Identity Politics and Asia-Pacific and who speaks English fluently, completed his PhD education at Gazi University in 2022 with his thesis titled "Identity Construction Process and Mahdism in the Islamic Republic of Iran within the Framework of Social Constructionism Theory and Securitization Approach". He is currently working as an Asia-Pacific Specialist at ANKASAM.