EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with PM’s key aide
ISLAMABAD - Improving ties with Afghanistan and India are the top priority for PML-led Nawaz Sharif government which is determined to focus more on Southeast Asia and Europe with the common underlying objective of injecting more economic content to bilateral relations for the much needed economic revival in Pakistan.
These priorities were highlighted by Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Foreign Affairs, Tariq Fatemi, in an exclusive interview to The Nation the other day. Fatemi, an accomplished former career diplomat, has been Sharif’s eyes and ears on foreign policy matters for nearly a decade now.
During the interview he dwelt at length on the prime minister’s outlook on country’s foreign policy and national security as well as on major challenges and concerns his government faces on this front.
PRIORITIES: Fatemi underscored that at the core of the PM’s initiatives was the belief that Pakistan’s economic revival is not possible until it has improved, tension-free relations with its neighbouring countries – particularly India and Afghanistan. Pointing to the accident-prone history of Pakistan-India relations, he said the PM’s view is that a degree of restraint and responsibility is needed to be exercised at both ends to avoid abrupt breakdown in ties.
“Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is a person who wants peace with India,” he said, recalling that it was during his government in 1999 when a breakthrough took place with the then hardliner BJP government in Delhi.
This is evident by the PML-N government’s rather mute policy towards India and Afghanistan despite provocative statements coming out of there. The prime minister believes peace and security in the region cannot be achieved in the absence of cordial and cohesive relations with the two neighbours, Fatemi stressed.
“PM wants economic ties to influence political ties. That trade, commerce and investment should be the primary themes for bilateral engagement... Without economic content, relationship is hollow and subject to winds of change,” he emphasised. Fatemi said that this paradigm shift had to take place, was PM’s first directive to all his diplomatic missions abroad after his visit to the Foreign Office last month.
Another priority of the PML-N government is ‘diversification of foreign policy’ to maximise opportunities and minimise constraints, Fatemi said. In this context he specifically mentioned expanding ties with Russia which is now a unique major power and a key player in world politics.
ECONOMIC REVIVAL: Fatemi emphasised that the present government’s thrust is on economic revival which it believes cannot be achieved without proactive economic diplomacy. To make this point the PM broke with the tradition and went on his first foreign visit to China – the ‘economic Makkah’. A fact that was repeatedly appreciated by the top Chinese leadership.
PM’s trip to China clearly demonstrated his ambitions of economic revival, Fatemi observed. Prime minister is convinced that China is the genuine investor in economic revival of Pakistan, he added.
However, when asked how the economic revival could be achieved with a highly compromised security situation in the country, he said the government had come up with a comprehensive mechanism to tackle this issue effectively.
“To tackle the security situation we now have an institutional framework for internal and external threats,” his reference being to the reconstituted Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) that is now renamed as Cabinet Committee on National Security (CCNS).
He explained that unlike the DCC, which was just an advisory body, the CCNS headed by the PM and comprising military-appointed and elected representatives is a decision-making body with a permanent secretariat. Equating it with the role of the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of the cabinet, he said the CCNS would have an institutional approach to resolution of security issues and to deal with militancy with all on board.
REKO DIQ: Fatemi outright discarded speculations about the PM having struck a deal with the Chinese on “quietly handing over” the Reko Diq gold mines in Balochistan to them during his recent trip to China. Fatemi, who accompanied the PM on this visit, said this question did not even figure in any discussion with the Chinese leadership and was not raised by either side. He seemed sure that tenders for Reko Diq contract would be floated in keeping with the international norms. However, he did not know when the process of tenders would begin.
CONTINUITY & CHANGE: While agreeing that overall there was continuity in the country’s foreign policy vis-a-vis India, Afghanistan, US and China, he explained: “There are no radical changes in country’s foreign policy; the difference is merely in nuance and injection of intensity in certain areas.” However, he was quick to add that the current government’s thrust on economic side of bilateral ties was a major change.
IP GAS PIPELINE: Fatemi disagreed with the view that the PML-N government was running away from the multi-billion Iran-Pakistan project because of the US and Saudi pressure. He maintained the project was being pursued seriously and the government handed over a non-paper on this project to top US diplomat John Kerry to convey Pakistan’s position on all aspects of the matter, making a strong case for Pakistan to go ahead with it.
Asked if there had been any feedback from Washington yet on the non-paper, he said the initial response by the top US diplomat was: “We will study it carefully.” However, he assured, this issue will be taken up by the prime minister himself in his first meeting with US President Barrack Obama later this month.
DRONES: On the question of use of drones by the US in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Fatemi said PM’s loud and clear message to the US Secretary of State during his visit here was that US will have to stop these drone attacks. That his government will not agree to such strikes under any circumstances as it has serious reservations. Fatemi asserted that the PM had decidedly discontinued the practice of his predecessors who condemned drone attacks publicly while consenting to their use behind-the-scenes. He said this issue will be flagged by Pakistan at the upcoming UN General Assembly session later this month and also during PM’s meeting with Obama.
MAJOR CHALLENGES: When asked about two major challenges for Nawaz government on the foreign policy front, Fatemi responded: “The two biggest challenges are the same as priorities but appear to be different... militancy and extremism in Pakistan and the spectre of a civil war in Afghanistan and it’s spill-over.” He mentioned that during Karzai’s recent visit to Pakistan, the government had emphasised the need for the two countries to evolve a border management mechanism to stop illegal cross-border movement of militants.
SYRIA: On Pakistan’s position regarding US decision to bypass the UNSC on the crucial question of military action against Syria, he declared: “It will destroy the very rationale of the United Nations.”