Pakistan’s strategic location is routinely touted by government functionaries and observers across the world to describe its distinct geographic resource value in terms of trade, connectivity, and security. In retrospect, American scholar Jakub J. Grygiel aptly describes geostrategy as the “geographic direction of a state’s foreign policy” which allows the national leadership to project military power and direct diplomatic activity in a certain direction. This concentration of effort is specifically resourceful for countries with limited resources and instead “they must focus politically and militarily on specific areas of the world.”
The raison d’être for Pakistan can be found in the Two-Nation Theory, which made it abundantly clear that living under majority Hindu rule in undivided India would leave the significant but minority Muslim community at long-term and irreversible political, social, cultural, and economic loss. The first four decades of the 20th century testify to the discriminatory attitude toward Muslims in pre-partition India under British colonial rule. It was this drive to retain their unique Muslim identity, which resulted in creation of Pakistan.
Contrary to certain rhetorical assertions, mere political and economic apprehensions did not motivate millions of Muslims to emigrate from India. A sizable segment of Muslims opted to remain in India. The common racial “Indian” strain which was sub-divided into different ethnicities and cultures in undivided India (Pashtuns, Tamils, Marhattas, Punjabis, Sindhis, Bengalis etc.) was scrapped and replaced with Islam or “Muslim-ness” as the focal point of unison among the inhabitants of this new country. Naturally, this would prompt majority of Pakistanis (Muslims) to look outside the Indian Subcontinent toward West Asia or the Arab Gulf, where some of the most symbolic of Muslim culture and civilisations including Islam’s holiest sites are situated.
The first four decades of the 20th century testify to the discriminatory attitude toward Muslims in pre-partition India under British colonial rule.
Renowned Pakistani political economist S. Akbar Zaidi examined this identity crisis in a thought-provoking piece as: “..the underlying claim that the state of Pakistan belongs to multiple and often conflicting regions and identities, but anyone who can pay the right price, can use this location to their advantage, to whatever purpose, ranging from those related to trade, investment, or even as bases for military exploits into neighbouring countries. As long as you pay, you get your way. While many, such as those who belong to the institutions of the state, celebrate this eclecticism which results in multi-polar identities being created for the purpose of profit, one could, in fact, argue that this lack of rootedness causes a condition which results in uncertain, fluid and schizophrenic behaviour. To make matters more interesting, this desire not to belong to any one particular region – despite geography, location and history – in other words, the conscious choice to remain unrooted, may be a consequence of a very rational thought process.”
That Pakistan’s geostrategic identity is the product of pragmatic posturing is debatable; significant losses on the foreign policy front, which directly impact internal security, suggest otherwise. This lack of geographic context has eroded the State of Pakistan’s national prestige and left it maneuvering in multiple directions.
Whereas, India’s external posturing is backed by a unified, multi-ethnic social and cultural concept of “Indian-ness” going back thousands of years, Pakistan has dramatically shape-shifted between the sub-regional constructs of West Asia (CENTCOM/GCC), South Asia (SAARC) and Central Asia (QCCM/SCO) without evaluating the conflicting long-term political, economic and security liabilities attached with this supposed policy of “non-alignment.” The presence of extra-regional forces has only added to the confusion. As a consequence, Pakistan has nothing but minimal relevance in each geographic zone.
Pakistan views India from the South Asian lens (South Asia Division), whereas, the latter sees Pakistan as part of a West Asian group alongside Iran and Afghanistan (Pakistan-Iran-Afghanistan Division) despite the latter maintaining a separate Indian Ocean Division, BIMSTEC and SAARC Division and Indo-Pacific Division. Basically, Islamabad does not feature anywhere in New Delhi’s South Asia framework.
One of the pitfalls of maintaining an uncertain geostrategic identity is that prominent regional and extra-regional countries have differing approaches toward Pakistan. Furthermore, on account of changing priorities, Pakistan is unable to devise a coherent and long-term foreign policy. A brief summary of how Pakistan is viewed by in the geostrategic context by externals is as follows:
- US: Pakistan is viewed as part of South and Central Asia, along with India.
- China: Pakistan is viewed as part of a broader Asia, along with India.
- Iran: Pakistan is viewed as part of Asia and Oceania, along with India.
- Russia: Pakistan is viewed as part of a southern, broader Asia through a combined Second Asian Department (2AD).
- Afghanistan: The same Deputy Foreign Minister deals with Pakistan and India, suggesting that both countries are viewed in the same grouping.
- EU: Maintains distinct relations with (delegations to) Pakistan and India.
- UK: Pakistan is viewed as part of the South Asia zone, along with India.
- Turkey: Pakistan is viewed as part of South Asia, along with India.
- Sri Lanka: Pakistan is viewed as part of South Asia, along with India.
- Oman: Pakistan is viewed as part of a broader Asia, along with India.
- Qatar: Pakistan is viewed as a member of Asia Pacific along with India.
- Australia: Pakistan is viewed as part of South Asia, along with India.
- KSA: Same Foreign Ministry representative holds meetings with Pakistan and India (lack of a proper institutional structure).
- UAE: Same Foreign Ministry representative holds meetings with Pakistan and India (lack of a proper institutional structure).
Although both Pakistan and India are grouped under South and Central Asia by the US foreign policy machinery (State Department), there is an anomaly in the defence and security front (Defence Department). In the current geostrategic environment, the US is in growing political-strategic alliance with India (State Department + INDOPACOM) to curtail China through its “Indo-Pacific” framework and routine deliberations with members of the Quad. Pakistan’s geostrategic value for the US in terms of Central Asia viz Afghanistan (State Department + CENTCOM) is given exceptional weightage but its other (South Asian) role viz CPEC is considered a thorn. This is not an emerging conundrum. Previously, Pakistan’s Central Asian vitality was put to test to keep tabs on Communist China in the 1960s and erstwhile USSR.
Pakistan has already embarked upon a mammoth inter-continental connectivity project.
Washington or for that matter any other country cannot be faulted for this lack of understanding. It is Pakistan’s own inability to decide which region it wants to be part of. Unlike India which has a significant land mass, influential diaspora abroad, and a comparably better economy, Pakistan cannot opt for the New Delhi route by navigating through complex regional groupings.
China’s BRI through CPEC presents an opportunity for Pakistan to define its geostrategic identity in a broad perspective. Extending from the easternmost tip of China in the Pacific Ocean through Indian Ocean to the south of India and toward the Mediterranean west of Turkey, Pakistan should ideally project itself as part of a “broader Asia” outside any specific sub-regional grouping.
This approach will incur two benefits: firstly, Pakistan will acquire the flexibility to navigate through different camps (Middle East and Asian sub-regions) without impacting the political, diplomatic, economic, and security relations associated with each. Secondly, Islamabad can expand its strategic stability paradigm by making other regional countries directly affected by any disruptions caused by India’s belligerent posturing, putting an end to the South Asian confines. A re-consideration of Pakistan’s land-centric defence calculus is imperative if such policy planning is to succeed.
Pakistan has already embarked upon a mammoth inter-continental connectivity project. The logical next step is to grow out of its sub-regional cocoons and embrace a broader Asian geostrategic identity. Rest assured the unfinished agenda of Indian-Occupied Jammu & Kashmir will not be affected by this process.
The writer is a freelance national security and strategic affairs commentator whose writings have appeared in South Asia Journal, The Nation, Russian International Affairs Council, The Frontier Post and Pakistan Observer, to name a few. He can be reached on Twitter @misterzedpk