Pakistan’s South Asia Policy

Pakistan needs to envision South Asia as a region with strategic balance and a region with the absence of coercion.

For several years, Pakistan has ad­opted a very inward-looking ap­proach, naturally, due to politi­cal instability and economic meltdown. However, Pakistan cannot stay oblivious to the changing na­ture of South Asian geopoli­tics for a long time. Therefore, Pakistan needs to pay close attention to the region and re­visit its South Asia policy.

South Asia in the 21st century holds one of the prominent positions in international security due to the pres­ence of emerging economies, rapid pop­ulation growth, strategic proximity with various significant regions, and emerg­ing traditional & non-traditional securi­ty challenges. Each country of South Asia holds significance in terms of its econo­my, strategic location, and diplomatic re­lations with other South Asian states as well as major powers.

Historically, the predominant culture in the South Asian strategic environ­ment revolved around the ‘India-centric approach’. In this culture, the smaller South Asian states such as Nepal, Bhu­tan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and to some extent Bangladesh had to rely on their relationship with India. Likewise, for Pakistan developments in smaller South Asian states did not affect its security prism. Hence, Islamabad’s primary fo­cus was on New Delhi’s policies and its strategic approaches towards Pakistan. However, the rise of China as a dominant economic power and Beijing’s desire to increase its political and economic influ­ence on smaller South Asian states has changed the strategic prism for small­er South Asian states. The Chinese in­gress in South Asian affairs also led to an unannounced competition between the two regional powers – India and Chi­na - for influencing smaller South Asian states, which will have far-reaching con­sequences for the entire region.

New Delhi has long considered small South Asian states as its strategic back­yard. However, since the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, China has pledged more than $100 billion in investments in South Asian states including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Beijing’s growing influ­ence in these states has added politi­cal and strategic choices to these states. Currently, South Asia can be divided into three categories: states that are striving to maintain a balance between the two regional powers and states that have chosen to align themselves with either India or China.

The Sino-Indian political competi­tion is further complicated due to overt American support to India against China. In this context, the United States has in­culcated structural changes in its South Asia policy. Washington has de-hyphen­ated Pakistan and India in the South Asian context. Currently, due to New Delhi’s sheer geographical and econom­ic size and conflictual relationship with China, Washington is following the ‘In­dia First’ policy in South Asia. This pol­icy has fundamentally, empowered New Delhi in strategic, economic, and politi­cal domains. Simultaneously, Washing­ton’s ‘India First’ approach has dented Pakistan’s national and regional inter­ests. The withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan further estranged Washington and Islamabad.

In 2022, Pakistan announced its first-ever National Security Policy (NSP) aimed to shift from geopolitics to geo­economics. One of the major pillars of this policy was regional connectivity and economic integration. However, it seems that unfortunately, the regional integra­tion in South Asia has become a fiction. This is mainly because India, being the neighbor of every South Asian state is adamant about playing a constructive role in regional integration and connec­tivity. In contrast to the proactive role In­donesia being the largest country among ASEAN members, has played in spear­heading regional integration within ASE­AN, the largest nation in South Asia ap­pears disinclined to allocate any room for the smaller nations within the region for regional connectivity.

In this hostile and challenging envi­ronment, what should be Pakistan’s South Asia policy? Primarily, Pakistan needs to envision South Asia as a re­gion with strategic balance and a region with the absence of coercion, where all states – small or big - have the freedom to frame their choice according to their national needs. Pakistan needs to envi­sion South Asia, as a region that is not dominated by one large country. South Asia must be a region where agreed norms, frameworks, and agreements predominantly set the rules of engage­ment. Region’s norms, frameworks, and agreements should not be dictated by a single strong country.

Islamabad needs to adopt a multi­pronged approach to cultivate its rela­tionship with smaller South Asian states. New Delhi’s strategic circles are trying to portray Pakistan as irrelevant to South Asia. This notion needs to be fiercely re­jected at the state level with a proper counter-narrative along with actions that affect New Delhi’s interests in South Asia. Pakistan has already cordial relationships with Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Maldives. While government-to-government relations are challenging with Bangladesh, the people-to-people relationship between the two countries is highly cordial, which needs to be further cultivated through consistent and structural engagements.

Pakistan needs to project and promote civilizational linkages with these small­er South Asian states. Perhaps, with the consent and support of China and small­er South Asian states, Pakistan can estab­lish a regional organization on ‘promot­ing civilizational linkages’ to structurally engage these countries for tourism, reli­gious studies, and cultural cooperation on Buddhism. Last but not least, Pakistan needs to put its weight behind Beijing in this Indo-China contestation of suprem­acy among smaller South Asian states. Many states such as Maldives, Bangla­desh, and Nepal are already resentful of New Delhi’s aggressive and hegemonic attitude. The ‘India Out’ campaign has al­ready been started in Maldives and Ban­gladesh. While Beijing is slowly making its inroads in these countries, Pakistan needs to adopt a proactive policy and make proactive choices in this evolving geostrategic environment.

Dr Khurram Abbas
The writer is a Director at the India Study Centre, Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. He tweets @itskhurramabbas

Dr Khurram Abbas
The writer is a Director at the India Study Centre, Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. He tweets @itskhurramabbas

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