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Cancelled Saarc summit exposes Pakistan’s foreign policy failure, whose root cause is its obsession with India

The Times of India (India)
Syed Munir Khasru
October 22, 2016


With five out of seven neighbours of Pakistan withdrawing from the Saarc summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad next month, the dismal failure of Pakistan’s diplomacy has been exposed. Saarc’s mechanism dictates that non-participation of any one member will result in cancellation of the summit. Yet five member nations officiated their withdrawal, showing how isolated Pakistan has become.

It’s time Pakistan does some soul searching, instead of playing victim to Indian conspiracy. Pakistan has only itself to blame for its failed diplomacy and leadership.

Pakistan failed to issue even a statement condemning the Uri attack, and the Indian leadership responded by adopting diplomatic means to isolate Pakistan. Bangladesh withdrew citing Pakistan’s interference in its internal affairs, related to Pakistan’s official expression of concern on Bangladesh’s judicial hanging of 1971 war criminals. Pakistan could have taken a cooperative stance to Bangladesh’s war tribunal initiative, by calling for adherence to international standards and norms while extending cooperation for a fair trial process. Instead, the incessant interventions from Pakistan have been uninvited and unnecessary.

Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan said recent intensification of terrorism has compromised the environment for a successful Saarc summit. Afghanistan’s boycott may have come as a shock to Pakistan, which hosts 1.6 million Afghan refugees.

Pakistan’s foreign policy failure stems from its obsession with India which makes it fight proxy wars in its neighbourhood. Pakistan had become a hurdle, in recent times, to South Asian integration initiatives like the Saarc motor vehicle agreement. Moreover, Pakistan failed to be a good host to Indian home minister Rajnath Singh in the Saarc home ministers’ meeting organised in Pakistan, which led Indian finance minister Arun Jaitley to skip the Saarc meeting of finance ministers in Islamabad. Finally, the Uri attack added fuel to the fire.

Being the Saarc host Pakistan could have played a positive role in easing acrimonious regional interactions, yet it chose not to. Pakistan has been accused by the international community of state sponsored terrorism and being a safe haven to militants. Pakistan’s policy of pick and choose for militants has infuriated its immediate neighbours. Afghanistan made an effort to refresh its relations with Pakistan when President Ashraf Ghani took office, yet very quickly tilted towards India for assistance suspecting Pakistan’s involvement in state sponsored terrorism.

The question arises, does cancellation of the Saarc summit really matter to Pakistan? The answer is both no and yes. South Asia analyst Ashok Malik has been quoted as saying it will have little practical impact on Pakistan but could push it closer to China. However, as other Saarc members move towards greater connectivity and economic cooperation, Pakistan’s economic aloofness can prove to be fatal in the long run. Neighbours have already started bypassing Pakistan, as with the Chabahar Port agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan.

The worrying fact for Pakistan is the increasing attention of Saarc states to sub-regional blocs within South Asia. The two big names are: SASEC (South Asia Sub-Regional Economic Cooperation of which Pakistan and Afghanistan are not members but all other Saarc states are) and Bimstec. SASEC, acting as a mini-Saarc, has already implemented projects worth $6 billion in the region and aims to strengthen cross-border trade and transport networks. Moreover, amidst the cancellation of Saarc, Bimstec member states were invited to the Brics summit by India. This should hammer home some hard ground realities on Pakistan’s leadership.

Opposition leaders in Pakistan’s parliament have criticised the country’s weak diplomacy. The history of Pakistan is one of a complex civil-military relationship whereby where the actual levers of power are is a big question not only for foreigners but many Pakistanis as well. Unless the civilian leadership is empowered to make decisions independently and boldly, the country is likely to continue to suffer from the pitfalls of a foreign policy that is fragmented in vision and fractured in its mission, as evidenced by the failed Saarc summit and Pakistan’s regional isolation.

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