Pakistan’s strategic location has, for long, proven to be both a blessing and a curse. Where the country’s sea corridor provides swift access to landlocked countries for sea trade and contributes towards its own economy, its borders on the North (with Afghanistan) and East (with India) have proved to be a source of conflict and instability. So far, the negatives – of Pakistan’s location – have outweighed the positives. But with recent regional developments, things are bound to change for the good.
The South Asian region, in particular, is facing drastic changes with the initiation of One Belt One Road (OBOR) project by the Chinese premier Xi Jinping, India’s pact with Iran to develop Chahbahar port, Russia’s resurgence and alliance with China, and America’s slow but steady retreat from Afghanistan. All these developments have a considerable impact on Pakistan and Islamabad needs to devise strategies and policies to stay relevant and reap maximum benefits.
The initiation of One Belt One Road (OBOR) project has created many opportunities for Pakistan. China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a flagship project of OBOR. CPEC will connect the Arabian Ocean through Gwadar to the underdeveloped regions of Western China. CPEC holds enormous advantages for China. Currently, 80 percent of China’s oil is transported from the Strait of Malacca to Shanghai, a distance of 16000 kilometers, but once the Gwadar becomes fully operational, the distance will be reduced to 5000 kilometers only.
Secondly, the current route is heavily militarized by China’s rivals United States and India. On the other hand, Beijing has invested 50 billion dollars in Pakistan. This investment, in form of CPEC, is facing several challenges such as security threats which has both internal and external dynamics. Internally, Baluchistan is plagued with insurgencies and externally New Delhi is trying to derail the project. Recently India, Iran and Afghanistan have signed a pact to build and operationalize the Chahbahar port. Many strategists consider the Chahbahar card as a counter measure to the CPEC, and the all-important Gwadar port in Balochistan.
Even if Tehran, Kabul and New Delhi refuse to use Gwadar – and persist with Chahabar – Pakistan should take heart from the fact that CPEC and Gwadar are in advanced stages of development. On the other hand, development on Chahabar is lukewarm. Finally, India would heavily rely on Iran for its access to Central Asia. With these limitations for India and Iran, Pakistan’s prospects of CPEC and Gwadar outweigh those of Chahbahar’s.
In the recent years Tehran’s influence in the Middle East has also increased significantly. Iran’s arch rival Saudi Arabia, along with its allies, has faced serious setbacks in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Iran is supporting Bashar Al Assad in Syria against Saudi backed rebels. Furthermore, according to Riyadh, Tehran is supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen against whom Saudi Arabia has launched a full scale military campaign. Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is involved in fighting alongside Iraqi forces in Mosul. Ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia are important for Pakistan. The former is a neighbor while the latter is a long-term ally. Islamabad needs to balance its relations with both. A tilt towards either would result in serious consequences for the region.
On the Eurasian front, Russia has resurrected itself on the global stage diplomatically, militarily and economically. This resurrection was evident from its interventions in Crimea and Syria, where both the adventures were more or less considered successful by Moscow. Moscow is also taking a strong role in the Afghan peace process. Moscow and Islamabad are former cold war rivals, but defense cooperation between the two countries has significantly improved over the past few years. Furthermore, Pakistan and Russia have conducted joint counterterrorism exercises in order to enhance military cooperation. Islamabad needs to further improve its ties with Russia in order to balance the equation of power in the region.
On the Afghan front, the American foreign policy is also in serious decline. According to Farid Zakaria, USA has failed to achieve any of its objectives in Afghanistan. Moreover, the results of its adventure in Iraq were similar to those of Afghanistan. Additionally, the power vacuum in Syria was filled by Russia and resulted in the decline of American influence in the Middle East. American indecision to topple Bashar Al Assad militarily has seriously affected its relations with Saudi Arabia. Due to these failure, the U.S. has a very limited influence remaining in the countries it invaded, and Afghanistan is no exception. Pakistan, along with regional actors, needs to work for the permanent settlement of the Afghan issue in wake of the US withdrawal.
Whether its developments in the neighboring countries or in the regional powers, Pakistan needs to devise an effective long term plan to work with its friends, allies, partners, as well as enemies. Only a pragmatic approach towards such alliances could ensure Pakistan’s prosperity in the short and long run.
The author, Saad ur Rehman, is an engineer by profession with interests in writing, blogging, politics and international affairs.