Since its inception, Pakistan has followed a security-centric foreign policy by focusing on major players such as the United States (US) and China. Unsurprisingly, these alliances were essential given the existing power disparity within the region, especially concerning its arch-rival India. The dearth of literature on the East Asian region shows that the long-held focus of the policymakers was towards the Westward alignment as it was a major source of trade and financial assistance. However, over time the changing geostrategic, political, and economic trends occurring regionally and globally, have led Pakistan to gradually shift its foreign policy objectives.
Over the decades, Pakistan has emphasised the need to establish ties with East Asia, in particular, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the disruption in its successful implementation has been caused by Pakistan’s domestic challenges and the overall security situation post 9/11. As noted by some analysts, the current government’s foreign policy is being reconstructed and is being defined by keeping in view the international environment.
ASEAN can act as a starting point for Pakistan to build strong diplomatic and economic ties with the Southeast Asian region. Following this trajectory will make Pakistan’s Vision East Asia Policy, endorsed in 2003, operational. The primary notion was to align strategically. Historically, however, Pakistan has worked with the East Asian countries to cut certain deals through diplomatic channels. Perhaps, the defence treaty commonly known as the Manila Pact that was struck between Pakistan and the Southeast Asian countries can be cited as an example. The pact, however, formed the basis for the establishment of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) spearheaded by the US to defend the region’s security interests from the threat posed by the then Soviet Union. The treaty, however, reached a dead-end and was suspended in 1977 after multiple members lost their interest. However, the following 20 years after the exchange somehow remained lukewarm and the diplomatic agenda of Pakistan was devoid of making inroads in East Asia, argued the article in the ASEAN Today.
ASEAN can act as a starting point for Pakistan to build strong diplomatic and economic ties with the Southeast Asian region. Following this trajectory will make Pakistan’s Vision East Asia Policy, endorsed in 2003, operational.
It is imperative to mention that the previous, as well as the current government apparatus, have rightly expressed their desire to boost relations with the Eastern bloc. The intention of Pakistan seeking a Full Dialogue Partnership (FDP) has been addressed specifically. This comes as no surprise that Pakistan’s economic and political ties are well below its potential. In terms of trade and investment, ASEAN provides the country with a promising incentive to fill the gaps and focus on connectivity. The combined GDP of only the ASEAN countries is over $3 trillion, and tapping into one of the fastest-growing markets would prove beneficial for Pakistan in reaching diverse markets.
Undoubtedly, the Vision East Asia Policy has taken a huge hit over the last two decades due to Pakistan’s domestic compulsions. A major chunk of the period was utilised in addressing the internal security challenges which greatly reduced the prospect of pursuing interests in a rather different bloc. As Ahmad Rashid Malik, in his article, noted that, “the Vision East Asia policy has become an irrelevant, unproductive, and forgotten initiative. An economically liberalising Pakistan has not been able to benefit from the ASEAN miracle. This trend needs to be drastically reversed.” Thus, Pakistan must engage with the region proactively. The shift can come through the significant Pakistani diaspora residing in the Southeast Asian region. The government can utilise this link to kick-start joint ventures. That would help the economy with a broader agenda. It will also generate a discussion in ASEAN’s policymaking circles. Additionally, a policy must be devised to encourage a variety of exchanges at the political, social, and cultural level to overcome this wide disconnect.
Whereas, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) can provide Pakistan with ample room for cooperation, which can be used to rekindle its East Asian Policy.
On the other hand, Pakistan can provide training in counterinsurgency operations to the ASEAN member countries as Islamic militancy troubles most of them; Pakistan has had a prolonged experience fighting against a “full-blown domestic insurgency”. Whereas, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) can provide Pakistan with ample room for cooperation, which can be used to rekindle its East Asian Policy. Also, the Southeast Asian market appears profitable for exporting Pakistan-made arms or weaponry, as demonstrated by the defence planners.
The time is right to follow this gradual shift in our foreign policy and to pursue engagements from a renewed standpoint. While the intention of reviving relations with East Asia has its significance, it must not be seen from the security prism concerning India. As many analysts consider that the temptation to not discuss the bilateral issues appears understandable, but the cost of it will be huge as at this juncture, the country must expand its economic and diplomatic footprint.