Realignments in the Region: Challenges for Pakistan

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Fauzia Nasreen*

*The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.


Paradigm shifts in the global and regional orders since the end of the Cold War have seen new alignments in different important regions of the world. These changes are on-going as the world continues to witness re-crafting of interests of various powers and actors. The emergence of Central Asian states, rising power of China, reassertion of Russia in world politics, the intense conflict in the Middle East as well as growing geopolitical significance of Asia have had a deep influence on the redefining of objectives and goals of states both in the regional and global contexts. However, the continuity and change manifest within the world order is embedded in geo-economics in which resources, markets, multinationals and financial architecture exercise dominant influence over state behaviour. Among the security challenges for the last few decades terrorism and extremism have dominated geopolitics.

In the configuration and reconfiguration of inter-state relations, the crucial questions remain about the contours of alignment where broadly speaking the US and the Arab world have consolidated their ties; and China, Russia and Iran seem to be coalescing. India claims to follow a neutral policy in West Asia yet it is attempting to court both Iran and Saudi Arabia. The challenge for Pakistan is more acute in terms of its historical and religious affinity with Saudi Arabia and geographical linkage with Iran. The conundrums for Pakistan are: maintaining a balance between commitment to the Saudi-led military coalition and ties with Iran; mollifying Afghanistan’s misplaced concerns allowing better access to Central Asia; constructively engaging with India in the wake of uprising in Kashmir, LOC violations and radical ideological moorings of the BJP-led Modi government. With the SAARC summit deadlocked, can the success of the 13th ECO Summit be translated into concrete and practical outcomes and could Pakistan and India’s membership of SCO transform the pattern of their relationship.

Historically, understanding of the world order has been contextual, seen through the prism of alignments of major powers within the realist perspective of polarity. Since the end of the Cold War the discourse on polarity has ranged between a unipolar to a multipolar world order. This debate has more or less defined the texture of convergence and divergence of interests and worldviews of different countries. It is also believed that no one true “world order” has ever existed in world history. There have been a variety of world orders within the international system.1 But, in the 21st Century the process of globalization, trans-nationalism, information technology revolution and rapid communication has added complexity to the interaction among various world orders. Consequently the split on the question of national and geographical boundaries and the mapping of various regions has ignited more violence and grievance at the popular level, particularly in the Middle East. The crises within the Islamic world have been exacerbated by ideological and doctrinal difference,2 as well.

The very concept of the Westphalia state system has come under stress as Daesh (Islamic State) claims to fight for establishing a cross-boundary Pan-Islamic caliphate unleashing the wave of sectarianism. It would be too simplistic to seek explanation in the sectarian divide alone. The Muslim Brotherhood and its populist ideology 3 have also irked countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. Further complicating the situation is Hamas, an affiliate of Brotherhood being espoused by Qatar and Turkey 4 and their closer ties with Iran. Ironically, President Trump’s May 20-24, visit to the Middle East instead of uniting the Islamic world against terrorism, has fuelled more discord and fractured the semblance of unity among the GCC countries. For Pakistan, these developments pose diplomatic and relationship challenges with countries in West Asia starting from Iran to Saudi Arabia and its allies and Qatar. Afghanistan’s tilt, for obvious reasons, will have to be towards the US inclinations though Kabul can ill afford to overlook Iranian concerns. What the impending shifts bode for the Chabahar enterprise which symbolized the Iran-India-Afghanistan nexus only time will tell, particularly in the wake of tightening of the India-US-Israel nexus.

Pakistan’s Geopolitical Dilemma

Pakistan’s desire to enter into mutually beneficial cooperation with the Central Asian states is over a couple of decades old. The forward initiatives for tapping the markets of these newly independent states were frustrated by geopolitical developments in the region. The civil war in Tajikistan which ended in 1996 and Taliban-Northern Alliance character of political dispensation of Afghanistan accentuated the state of regional instability. The flux in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations marred the prospects to a large extent. Together with the entrenched interests of outside powers and competition for influence among the regional actors, the outcome has been a complex power contest. Despite commitment to such economic projects as IPI, TAPI and CASA-1000 and other projects the progress on their realization has been tardy if not negligible.

Under these circumstances, the new levels of deep engagement between China and Pakistan seem to have transformed the regional undercurrents. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that links Kashgar and Gwadar through land route has provided the much needed alternate outlet to Pakistan in reaching Central Asia and beyond through the Silk Road of One Belt One Road (OBOR). Having acquired a new dimension, the trajectory of Pakistan-China relations in the 21st Century has put increased focus on economic ties, infrastructure development, energy sustainability, water security and other such areas. This elevation of mutual ties has caused disquiet as it upsets the designs of some players to shape the regional order to suit their interests. This has generated additional urgency for Pakistan policy makers, particularly in view of the convergence of interests reflected in the 27 June 2017 Trump-Modi joint statement. The emerging challenges where the Indo-US concert aims to contain China reemphasizes the need for stronger strategic partnership with China. CPEC provides an opportunity not just for economic gain but for strategic leverage.5

China has emerged as a crucial balancer in the region. It has an international stature, financial power and strategic interests in the stability and development of its surrounding regions. Beijing’s vital objective is in bringing about tranquility and prosperity in its less developed provinces, particularly the Xinjiang province. Through development, soft power and economic diplomacy China’s aim is to combat the three evils: extremism, terrorism and separatism. Within this framework, peace and security in the periphery of China is critical. By invigorating infrastructure development and connectivity projects China’s vision is to spur growth in the markets and induce economic activity in the less developed regions. For this, China has created financial institutions with heavy investment of its own and contributions from other countries and organizations. This could mean that China will become a pivotal factor in the way regional alignments would consolidate.

For the US, Asian regions have immense geo-strategic importance. In addition to its desire to maintain active global presence as a super power, the hydrocarbon resources along with the sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific are of vital interest and concern to Washington. The US’ engagement and dissuasion policies towards China have a bearing on Pakistan-US relations given the tight relations between China and Pakistan. The US, under Trump presidency, has embraced India as a strategic partner defining these ties as based on shared values and convergence on regional issues. The consolidation of US-Israel-India nexus is becoming more evident with the multifaceted cooperation agreements signed during the June Washington and July Tel Aviv visits of Mr. Modi. The supply of weapons to India by both US and Israel will pose serious questions for strategic stability in South Asia as well as endanger the fragile security environment. The visit of Senator McCain and his congressional delegation to Pakistan in early July have helped little to assuage Islamabad’s concerns as the assurances have been negated by the subsequent statements made by him in Kabul. Either there is confusion and incoherence in US state policies on South Asian issues or a deliberate approach aimed at deepening intra-regional mistrust.

Russia’s resurgence and deepening involvement in the Middle East and watchful disposition towards South and Central Asia adds another dice in the geopolitical game. Moscow’s reassertion as a player with significant clout is not restricted to Eurasia alone. Moscow has become a dominant player in the Middle Eastern chessboard and, as Washington analysts say, is “calling the shots”6 as evidenced in its role in creating de-escalation zones with the support of Iran and Turkey. With the tension becoming more pronounced between the US and China on the North Korean issue and the widening gap between Moscow and Washington, both the Russian and Chinese leadership consulted each other in advance of the G-22 summit held in mid-July. The Trump-Putin meeting at the Summit, at the geopolitical level led to an agreement on the ceasefire zones in Syria. However, their parleys deepened the fissures at the domestic level, leading to the Congress bill imposing sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea.

How these complexities will translate into Pakistan’s immediate neighbourhood is a crucial question for Islamabad policy makers. Given that a bill has been proposed in Congress that calls for tough restrictions on Pakistan the general sentiment of the US politicians is clearly evident. Moreover the US Country Reports on Terrorism (annual assessment of the State Department) has toed the oft repeated line of “Do more,” reiterating the demand about the Haqqani network. The general assessment is that in view of the likely troop surge in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s cooperation will be essential. It has been made clear to the commanding officer General Nicholson by the Chief of Army Staff, General Bajwa that the “blame game is hurting Pakistan’s terror fight”7 and negative statements undermine Pakistan’s counter terrorism efforts which are vital for the stability and security of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Much would depend on the US Afghan policy review that would be finalized sometime in July. The impending increase in troop level will be a part of the review. It is considered crucial as the Taliban continue encroaching on government controlled territory and Daesh threatens the delicate security dynamics. For Moscow and Beijing these are alarming developments and for Pakistan and the CPEC project they pose serious challenges.

Regional dynamics

South Asia is an important piece in the alignment matrix. The tension ridden relationship between two nuclear states, India and Pakistan has become even more volatile because of Indian atrocities in Kashmir, ceasefire violations along the Line of Control and Working Boundary, suspension of bilateral dialogue and increasing belligerency by India. The sub-conventional warfare waged in the region is like a tinder-box. It can potentially flare up and escalate to the level where non-conventional weapons might come into play. India has built hype about terrorism and used it to malign Pakistan. Its sponsorship of subversive elements has now been proven. Within the region its Hindutva ideology manifests in its desire to subjugate and include in its orbit regions from Kabul to Rangoon. Its goal is to subdue Pakistan and allow Indian economic hegemony. For this New Delhi has attempted to reach out to Iran and Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. Despite repeated offers by Pakistan and China to join CPEC, India has openly stated “CPEC lacked economic justification.”8 Pakistan is of the firm belief that India’s objective of creating “lawlessness” in Baluchistan is motivated by designs to damage CPEC.

There have been far reaching implications of the 1979 Iranian revolution and the unfolding of the ideological state structure. Since then relations between Iran and the Gulf countries and Egypt have been frosty. The Arab spring beginning in 2011 has further disturbed the historical fault lines. Iran has staked its geostrategic interests and concerns with the Houthes of Yemen, Hizbollah of Lebanon, Shiites of Iraq and Syria of Bashar al Asad. Yet another recent complicating factor is the rift between Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Qatar on inter alia Doha’s ties with Iran. The US-Saudi Arabia tightening of defence cooperation and the emerging new leadership of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has definitely given an added impetus to the evolving regional alignments. How these dynamics will impact Pakistan-Iran relations is a ponderable point especially as the former Army Chief General Raheel Sharif will command the Islamic Military Alliance which is seen as a bloc against Iran.


In view of the foregoing there are numerous uncertainties about regional alignments. Notwithstanding India’s dependence on Iranian oil and gas, incentives and pressures would bear upon Indian policy makers in so far as close cooperation between Tehran and New Delhi is concerned. The question is where do projects like Chabahar and other infrastructure development stand in the wake of US-India-Israel nexus. Notwithstanding Indian belief that Chabahar project is “at the heart of the common vision that India and Iran have for Afghanistan and the region as a whole”9 there are definite spanners in the full realization of the project for the time being. The connectivity dream and Afghanistan’s euphoric ecstasy about other than Pakistan route could be in doldrums.

The real challenge for Pakistan which could grow in magnitude in the future is to ensure a neutral and balanced role in the intra-Muslim countries squabbles. While anchoring on China-Pakistan strategic ties, growing relations with Russia and leveraging its geostrategic location, Islamabad must approach the US policy objectives in Afghanistan from a position of strength. US-Pakistan ties are important in the context of stabilization of Afghanistan and success in meeting the threats emanating from various elements in the country. Therefore, Pakistan-US ties need astute handling.


1- Henry Kissinger, World order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, Allen Lane, 2014

2- Munir Akram, “A Dark Age” Dawn, 11 June 2017

3- Zamir Akram, “Trump and South Asia”, The Express Tribune, 4 July 2017

4- Stephen Sestanovich, “Be Wary of Ptuin’s Syria Plna”, New York Times, 13 May 2017

5- Ziauddin, “China’s Case for Joining CPEC”, The Express Tribune, 13 May 2017

6- Vijay Prasahd, “India’s Iran Policy: Between US Primacy and Regionalism”, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, November 2013

7- “ COAS to US general: Blame game hurting Pakistan’s terror fight”, The Express Tribune, 27 July 2017



1- Kissinger, Henry, World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, Allen Lane, 2014

2-Akram, Munir, “A Dark Age”, Dawn, 11 June 2017



5- Akram, Zamir, “Trump and South Asia”, The Express Tribune, 4 July 2017

6- Sestanovich, Stephen, “Be Wary of Putin’s Syria Plan”, New York Times (International Edition), 13 May 2017

7-“ COAS to US general: Blame game hurting Pakistan’s terror fight”, The Express Tribune, 27 July 2017

8-Ziauddin M., “China’s case for joining CPEC”, The Express Tribune, 13 May 2017

9-Prashad, Vijay, “India’s Iran Policy: Between US Primacy and Regionalism”, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (International Affairs), November 2013