AsiaGlobal Voices

Trending Opinions From Across the Region

AsiaGlobal Voices is a curated feed of summaries of opinion articles, columns and editorials published in local languages in media from across Asia.

The publication of AsiaGlobal Voices summaries does not indicate any endorsement by the Asia Global Institute or AsiaGlobal Online of the opinions expressed in them.
Breastfeeding is not a One-Person Job
Sunday, August 6, 2023
Breastfeeding is not a One-Person Job

Hareem Sumbul Bari, certified lactation consultant, in Dawn (August 5, 2023)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: Saiyna Bashir/UNICEF Pakistan)

Breastfeeding is not a One-Person Job

World Breastfeeding Week (August 1-7) is upon us. This year, the governing theme is “Enabling breastfeeding: making a difference for working parents”. Maternity leave in Pakistan was 90 days of paid leave but the recent Maternity and Paternity Act, 2020, gives us 180 days for the first child, 120 days for the second and 90 days for the third child from the date of inception. It also has a clause for paternity leave. This comes as a great relief for working parents if they have been able to initiate breastfeeding and are to hold on to it for as long.

Breastfeeding is natural but it may not come naturally to a new mother. It is indeed a skill that like any other needs to be learnt and taught. Pakistan is teetering at the edge with a 15pc breastfeeding initiation rate despite our very strong religious and social inclinations to want to breastfeed. At this rate, most parents will not be breastfeeding once they return to work. To enable breastfeeding for working families, we must ensure they are breastfeeding in the first place. They need to be supported with lactation-trained and skilled professionals before birth and for as long as their breastfeeding journey lasts.

Every medical practitioner they come into contact with should have at least a basic understanding of lactation so as to not inadvertently jeopardize the patient’s breastfeeding journey. Then perhaps we will have more parents returning to work and being able to continue to breastfeed. Having said that, many mothers even today are cut short in the effort, because of lack of support at work and home once their maternity leave ends. I cannot stress enough that breastfeeding is not a one-person job. It is the responsibility of the community to preserve it.

Hiccups in Regional Diplomacy
Sunday, July 16, 2023
Hiccups in Regional Diplomacy

Muhammad Amir Rana, security analyst, in Dawn (July 16, 2023)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: PTI)

Hiccups in Regional Diplomacy

The member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) were displeased with India’s decision to host their summit virtually instead of in person. This decision was widely interpreted as a deliberate strategy to prevent inviting the Pakistani prime minister to Delhi and to convey a message to the US. Furthermore, it was perceived as an effort to transform the SCO into an organization similar to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

The primary objective of establishing SAARC was to enhance economic and cultural cooperation in the South Asian region. It was agreed that the forum should not be utilized for discussing bilateral disputes. This optimistic expectation, however, was shattered as SAARC members blamed India and Pakistan for the failure of the initiative. With the inclusion of India and Pakistan in the SCO, a sense of hope arose that both nations would eventually normalize relations, thereby fostering mutual interdependence. The SCO’s potential for collaboration in security and counterterrorism was seen as an opportunity to influence the Pakistan-India relationship positively. Unfortunately, both countries have so far let down the Central Asian states, Russia and China.

India has been accused of using the SCO platform for political purposes. The last virtual forum, in which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeated his allegations of cross-border terrorism and that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) route going through the Gilgit-Baltistan region is an example. Although there is little substance to these allegations, India keeps using this narrative as an excuse to avoid dialogue with Pakistan. Exploiting regional forums for this purpose, however, is not beneficial to the regional initiative and will not favor India.

The failure of regional forums pushes states towards bilateral and multilateral engagements for cooperation. Alternative or parallel platforms, however, cause distractions and waste diplomatic vigor.

Is This Country Ungovernable?
Monday, June 20, 2022
Is This Country Ungovernable?

Maleeha Lodhi, former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, UK and UN, in Dawn (June 20, 2022)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: Prime Minister’s Office, Islamic Republic of Pakistan) 

Is This Country Ungovernable?

Governance problems have mounted due to political discontinuities that have punctuated Pakistan’s turbulent history. But today, the challenge of governability is more imposing because of a number of other factors. Political polarization is the obvious one. Never before have people, society and families been so divided by their partisan preferences as they are today and resistant to accepting any view other than their own.

This situation is casting a shadow on state institutions which are increasingly the target of partisan attacks. Discussion of public policy is substituted by fact-free efforts to demonize political rivals. This distracts the government from governing and the opposition from focusing on issues.

What has made governance more problematic is erosion in the state’s institutional capacity over the years and the resultant deterioration in delivery of public services, which increasingly fails to meet people’s expectations. The most important and recurring factor driving the country towards becoming ungovernable are dysfunctional economic policies that have long been pursued. Almost every government since the mid-1980s acted in a fiscally irresponsible way and left the economy in worse shape for its successor to deal with.

The chickens have now come home to roost. The country is in the throes of another financial crisis, foreign exchange reserves have depleted, inflation is at an all-time high, power shortages are placing an unbearable burden on people, and an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout is being sought. A weak economy with little resilience to cushion such shocks is the result of poor economic management by reform-averse ruling elites concerned more with preserving their own power than promoting the public interest. The confluence of polarized politics and economic turmoil is pushing Pakistan into the danger zone of becoming ungovernable.

Echoes of the Cold War
Tuesday, February 15, 2022
Echoes of the Cold War

Maleeha Lodhi, former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, UK and UN, in Dawn (February 14, 2022)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China)

Echoes of the Cold War

As saber rattling continues in the crisis over Ukraine, shifting geopolitics have pushed Russia and China into closer alignment while exposing differences within the Western coalition on how to respond. It has further intensified East-West polarization and sent tensions soaring to a new high amid US warnings that Russia might invade Ukraine. 

The stand-off between US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries and Russia is widely seen to be about the balance of power and security architecture in Europe. President Vladimir Putin, who has witnessed several waves of NATO’s eastward expansion, has now drawn a red line insisting on a halt to more expansion. He regards this as a threat to Russia’s security and intrusion into its “sphere of influence”. 

What this crisis has done is bring Moscow and Beijing into a tighter embrace which some Western analysts are now describing as a China-Russia axis. The meeting between President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics in Beijing concluded with a strong expression of solidarity and resolve to mount a united front against the US.

Although the crisis is still playing out it has been marked by echoes of the Cold War. The stand-off also reinforces the overarching global dynamic of growing East-West mistrust and confrontation while holding out the prospect of a world increasingly riven into two competing blocs.

The Return of the Taliban: Outsiders Must Show Patience
Monday, September 6, 2021
The Return of the Taliban: Outsiders Must Show Patience

Riaz Mohammad Khan, foreign secretary of Pakistan from 2005 to 2008, in Dawn (September 4, 2021)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: Talk Media News Photo Archives)

The Return of the Taliban: Outsiders Must Show Patience

The Afghan Taliban leadership faces huge challenges, internal and external adversaries, internal dissensions and divisions, riled-up human rights and liberal groups, powerful hostile lobbies and media – especially in the West – and the need for international recognition. But first and foremost, they have to put together an effective government with a semblance of the promised inclusiveness and reconciliation. They will need space to settle down.

Outsiders must show patience. The Afghan leadership, in particular the Taliban leaders, have the primary responsibility of averting a civil war. Their neighbors and the world community must do everything they can to help achieve that objective. The world community must be generous with humanitarian assistance to prevent further aggravation of the suffering of the Afghan people. Pakistan should also brace itself for a possible influx of refugees.

There is room for optimism in the current maelstrom of the worldwide discussion on Afghanistan. Arguably, a stable Afghanistan will remove a blockage and open up the entire surrounding region for economic activity. Much has already been said about opportunities, communications, trade and energy links and economic activity. Regional countries have a role and capacity, but all this will boil down to idle talk if there is an absence of purposeful engagement, or regional rivalries are reasserted for political influence or resources, and conflict returns to Afghanistan.

Among the neighbors, in a range of unique but familiar factors, Pakistan has an important role to play. It will require both circumspection and prudence to enable itself and Afghanistan to be sovereign co-partners for the benefit of the region. Past experience validates concerns regarding spoilers, but the new environment may well help mitigate the potential for mischief. Meanwhile, Pakistani policymakers need to be cautious about pushing the new Afghan government over bilateral issues.

The President Explains Why Kashmir Matters
Monday, August 9, 2021
The President Explains Why Kashmir Matters

Arif-ur-Rehman Alvi, President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, in Dawn (August 5, 2021)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: @PresOfPakistan on Twitter)

The President Explains Why Kashmir Matters

The two years since India unilaterally and illegally stripped Kashmir of its special status have been a somber reminder that our Kashmiri brothers and sisters remain under a brutal military occupation. Despite seven decades of denial of their right to self-determination, the Kashmiris continue their steadfast demand for the right to choose their future. No amount of brutal oppression and atrocities have dented their resolve.

Pakistan and its people are united in their hearts and in their minds with our Kashmiri brothers and sisters. We have always stood for a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute according to the aspirations of the people of Kashmir and in keeping with the principles of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions.

The government continues to take steps to highlight the Kashmir cause and Indian human rights violations on the world stage. For the first time in decades, the Kashmir issue has been discussed at the UNSC. Several leaders across the world and international journalists have called out India for its human rights violations.

To divert attention from the humanitarian catastrophe, India has embarked on a campaign to malign Pakistan internationally through a concerted propaganda campaign while actually sponsoring terrorism against my country, as revealed by Pakistan’s dossier on Indian-sponsored terrorism and disinformation.

The struggle in Kashmir is indigenous and has always enjoyed popular support against the Indian military occupation. Pakistan will continue to awaken the world conscience to the plight of the Kashmiris, and I remind the nations of the world that they owe it to the people of Kashmir and to the principles of humanity to let Kashmiris decide their future. Kashmir stays as an unfulfilled promise on the world conscience. The day is not far when the people of Kashmir will be free from the yolk of Indian occupation, Insha’Allah.

Can Peace Still Be Won In Afghanistan?
Tuesday, July 13, 2021
Can Peace Still Be Won In Afghanistan?

Maleeha Lodhi, former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, UK and UN, in Dawn (July 12, 2021)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: US Institute of Peace)

Can Peace Still Be Won In Afghanistan?

Fears are growing in the region and beyond about what lies ahead for war-torn Afghanistan. A throwback to the past with armed power struggles between militias? A protracted civil war? An ascendant Taliban flushed with victory eventually setting up a government with nominal inclusion of minorities? Or will the Taliban reach out to other Afghan parties for negotiations to forge agreement on their country’s political arrangements and future?

The American military withdrawal is nearing completion in what President Joe Biden described in his end-of-mission address as a speedier drawdown driven by safety concerns. It has been orderly and so far, casualty-free. This means that the US-Taliban Doha agreement is holding with the Taliban ensuring a peaceful exit. Pakistan has played a supportive role in facilitating a smooth US pullout.

But as the US drawdown entered its final phase, fighting escalated between the Taliban and Afghan government forces. The Taliban have stepped up their offensive and in a series of military assaults overrun and captured many districts. Taliban representatives have sought to reassure anxious neighbors that they pose no threat to the region. Although President Biden has said a Taliban takeover is not inevitable, a much-cited US intelligence assessment concluded it could be as early as six months. Pakistan’s assessment is that Kabul could hold out beyond six months.

The US has warned the Taliban against any military takeover. The key question now is whether the international community can still act to encourage the Taliban and other parties to pursue a negotiated settlement. Pakistan should encourage an early meeting of representatives of the Troika countries – US, China and Russia. Let it not be said that diplomacy failed the people of Afghanistan who have already suffered so much through decades of war, turmoil and strife.

The Terrifying Cost of Enforced Modesty
Tuesday, June 22, 2021
The Terrifying Cost of Enforced Modesty

Pervez Hoodbhoy, physicist and writer, in Dawn (June 19, 2021)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: brewbooks)

The Terrifying Cost of Enforced Modesty

Implementation of the government’s Single National Curriculum (SNC) has started in Islamabad’s schools and for students the human body is to become a dark mystery, darker than ever before. Religious scholars appointed as members of the SNC Committee are supervising the content of schoolbooks in all subjects including science. In the name of Islamic morality they have warned publishers not to print any diagram or sketch in biology textbooks that show human figures without clothes.

For the teaching of biology this surpasses existing de facto prohibitions on teaching evolution, the foundational principle of biological sciences. Illustrations are crucial to explain the digestive system and human reproduction, as well as the mammary gland. Diagrams, sketches and human skeletal forms cannot be draped. Excluding these from schoolbooks reduces the teaching of biology to a farce.

Inhibitions about the human body, of course, have been around for much longer than SNC. It is just that henceforth there will be still more. When enforced, clerical interpretations of modesty cause people to suffer grievously. For example, ex-senator Maulana Gul Naseeb Khan roundly condemned diagnostic devices that can look inside women’s bodies because, “we think that men could derive sexual pleasure from women’s bodies while conducting electrocardiogram (ECG) or ultrasound”. Claiming that women would lure men under the pretext of medical procedures, the maulana’s party banned ECG and ultrasound for women by male technicians and doctors when in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Trained females, however, were not to be found.

By inviting mullahs to regulate biology textbooks the government has put Pakistan in reverse gear. Pakistan is not just in reverse gear; it is hell-bent upon moving backward as fast as possible. The kind of mixed-up, confused and ignorant generations the curriculum changes will produce in times ahead is absolutely terrifying.

Women and Political Inequality: Exclusion Cannot Be Allowed To Persist
Wednesday, March 10, 2021
Women and Political Inequality: Exclusion Cannot Be Allowed To Persist

Umair Javed, Assistant Professor, Lahore University of Management Sciences, in Dawn (March 8, 2021)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: Commonwealth Secretariat)

Women and Political Inequality: Exclusion Cannot Be Allowed To Persist

Gender inequality takes a variety of forms in Pakistan, but a fundamental one is political inequality. Gender-based variation in politics include barriers to voting, barriers to seeking elected office, barriers to access within political parties, and barriers to representation in policymaking and governance.

Leaving other aspects aside for the time being, it is worth starting with the most basic act of political participation: voting. Out of Pakistan’s nearly 106 million registered voters, only 44 percent are women, at least 6 percent less than their actual proportion in the adult population. These issues are compounded at two levels – eligible female voters not being registered on electoral rolls, and women not being registered as citizens at all.

Even if women are registered, female turnout tends to be lower than male turnout across the country. The male-gap in voter turnout in the 2018 general elections stood at 9.1 percent, with 11 million more men voting than women.

So what factors are responsible for driving this suppression of women voters, and what can be done to mitigate it? Evidence from the authors’ prior fieldwork in Lahore suggests that gatekeeping by male household members remains a persistent factor, even in urban centres; 8.3 percent of male respondents said it was not appropriate for women to vote in a general election.

Outside of household dynamics, the lack of engagement by political parties also contributes to inequality in voting outcomes. It is this last factor, which highlights both a central problem, as well as a pathway towards reduced gender-based political inequality. Political parties face the greatest responsibility in minimizing exclusion. If resolving this issue requires legislation and its implementation, political elites should work it out through legal reform. What is clear is that the current state of exclusion cannot and should not be allowed to persist.

The Helplessness Americans Feel
Thursday, January 14, 2021
The Helplessness Americans Feel

Rafia Zakaria, attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy, in Dawn (January 13, 2021)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: Joe Flood)

The Helplessness Americans Feel

Ever since 9/11, and arguably even prior to that, Americans believed that terrorism was a Muslim problem. Such was this belief that in the post-9/11 years the Department of Homeland Security was created to protect the US from Islamist militancy. And as everyone in South Asia and the Middle East experienced, that was hardly all of it.

In Afghanistan, where the 9/11 terrorists had hidden, a military campaign (still ongoing) killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. In Iraq, a functioning infrastructure of governance was dismantled, nearly a million innocent Iraqis were killed and several millions more rendered refugees. The weight of the cumulative carnage spanned decades and its true measure is still not known. In the US, every Muslim became a terror suspect, and mosques were filled with undercover FBI agents trying to find terrorists.

Those days lasted until Jan 6, 2021. Until then, and despite the rising number of home-grown white supremacist terror attacks, Americans still believed that terrorism was a Muslim problem, inextricably tied to something about the faith. If anyone, particularly a Muslim, interjected, the retort would be something like, “Yes, maybe not all terrorists are Muslim, but so many are”. It would be the beginning of a pointless argument, the only value of which was how it exposed the extent of American Islamophobia.

Perhaps Americans who are watching in disbelief can use this time to consider the position of Pakistanis who watched their country slip into chaos and carnage for the entire duration of America’s so-called war on terror. The helplessness they feel is the helplessness that Pakistanis felt – wanting to do something but not knowing what to do, also knowing that the intoxications of extremist ideology are such that those who have been affected by them cannot be easily converted to reason and rationality.

Countering the Indian Threat
Wednesday, December 23, 2020
Countering the Indian Threat

Zahid Hussain, journalist and author, in Dawn (December 23, 2020)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: Gabriele Giuseppini)

Countering the Indian Threat

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has again warned of an Indian plan to launch a “surgical strike” on Pakistan. For a Pakistani leader to describe an Indian plan of blatant military aggression as a “surgical strike” is beyond one’s comprehension. Surely the foreign minister did not realize what the term might convey, but in diplomacy one needs to be extremely careful about the nuances. It is indeed a grave situation and one that needs to be handled more seriously.

Any military incursion into Pakistan would be a risky gamble by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Such reckless action would also be in danger of spiraling out of control and turning into a full-blown military conflagration. The underlying calculation of Modi’s escalation is that India can afford this brinkmanship given the country’s diplomatic clout. But it is hard to believe that any blatant act of aggression will go unnoticed.

A major challenge for Pakistan, however, is how to respond to the Indian bellicosity. There is no doubt that Pakistan’s armed forces are fully capable of effectively countering any Indian military adventurism. But foreign aggression cannot be defeated by military means alone. The country’s major vulnerabilities are its weak economy and perpetual political instability.

There is a need for a broad consensus on key national security issues. Lack of clarity on national security is a failure of our leadership. It is mainly the responsibility of the prime minister to provide leadership. Instead of taking parliament into confidence on the Indian escalation, the political leadership has relied more on media and tweets to inform the nation about the threat. Our diplomatic efforts have also been hampered by the lack of a robust foreign policy. We need a more proactive approach to meeting the serious security challenge while refraining from creating panic.

Water Scarcity is the Biggest Problem
Wednesday, December 2, 2020
Water Scarcity is the Biggest Problem

Huma Yusuf, writer, in Dawn (November 30, 2020)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: DFID)

Water Scarcity is the Biggest Problem

Arguably Pakistan’s biggest problem is water scarcity. The country faces acute water scarcity by 2025 and will be the most water-stressed country in South Asia within two decades. Almost 30 million Pakistanis have no access to clean water. One would think that the best way to spur discourse on water scarcity would be to focus on basic human rights: the right to access clean water, food and maintain hygiene. 

Another approach could be to emphasize that Pakistan’s water crisis is in fact a failure in water management, an example of our governments’ and bureaucracy’s inability to deliver basic services. Studies argue that Pakistan’s water scarcity can be addressed through data gathering, improved efficiency, reduced losses and improved sowing. More and better-coordinated government initiatives and subsidies, such as the drip irrigation scheme in Punjab, are needed. The 2018 National Water Policy needs a revamp, and aggressive implementation.

But the water management argument has not caught the public imagination. The national debate on malnourishment, which affects one-third of Pakistani children, also fails to make the link with water scarcity. Malnourishment is highest in Pakistan’s irrigated districts, where agriculturalists prioritize growing cash crops for export over domestic food security.

If Pakistan is to rally around the need to address water scarcity, it needs a new narrative. Water needs to be reframed not just as a citizen’s basic right but also as a political priority, central to our prosperity. Fisherfolk are campaigning for the Indus River to be granted personhood and associated rights. Many see the idea as too radical. But it indicates the desperation of those most affected by water scarcity. It might be just the new narrative we need to talk about our most pressing problem.

The Government’s Failure of Communication
Tuesday, October 13, 2020
The Government’s Failure of Communication

Fahd Husain, editor, in Dawn (October 10, 2020)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: Prime Minister’s Office Islamic Republic of Pakistan)

The Government’s Failure of Communication

Faced with the most potent threat since coming to power, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party today runs the risk of tripping on what it has always considered its core strength. In the age of communication while fighting a war of communication, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s team may be falling victim to a failure of communication.

This failure can be encapsulated in three distinct points: (1) obsession with opposition at the expense of everything else; (2) obsession with opposition at the expense of everything else; (3) obsession with opposition at the expense of everything else. This everything else in turn can also be encapsulated in three distinct points: (1) failure to define core areas of strength; (2) failure to defend core areas of weakness; (3) failure to design the government’s vision in terms of what it is and not merely what it is not.

The fault lies not in its stars but in its strategy. Ever since he entered the political arena, Imran Khan had framed his identity in terms of what he was not – not corrupt, not dishonest, not a dynast, not in politics for business, not beholden to vested interests and not ready to compromise on principles for political expediency. He painted what he was not in reference to his predecessors. This framing was critical for his political branding.

It worked. But now the government is sagging under the weight of its innumerable spokespeople. The government’s army of ministers, advisers, special assistants and spokespeople have failed to communicate effectively because they are unable or unwilling to comprehend, contextualize and convey much beyond their bequeathed party DNA. It is easy to mock, taunt and sneer; not so easy to explain, elaborate and enumerate. The PTI is falling into its own communication trap.

The Mass Party and the Digitalization of Politics
Friday, August 21, 2020
The Mass Party and the Digitalization of Politics

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, Associate Professor of Political Economy, National Institute of Pakistan Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, in Dawn (August 21, 2020)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: @Ahm4dJamal)

The Mass Party and the Digitalization of Politics

Popular politics used to be the preserve of mass political organizations that could legitimately claim to represent the interests of significant sections of the population. The idea of the mass party was inextricably tied to democratic statecraft.

Some would argue that this idea is now dead. Even though Pakistan has always been dominated by an authoritarian and militarized state that sabotaged democratic politics, mass political parties have thrived. The field of politics has been transformed by digital technology with profound implications. Digitalization allows for millions of people to articulate themselves politically and highlight the injustices and inequalities that litter our social landscape. Yet it also reinforces the feeling that mainstream political parties are at best unable and at worst unconcerned with what takes place at the grassroots.

The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) certainly claims the mantle of a popular mass party. But it is far more accurate to describe it at as an agglomeration of entrenched “electables” that has nevertheless been able to project itself as a mass organization on the basis of successful media projection and active digital cadres. It relies on tried and tested signifiers like “corruption” and “national security” even as it benefits from a youth bulge that has been bred on an anti-politics narrative championed by our own establishment and emblematic of neoliberal “governance” around the world.

The vision of rule by a popular and progressive majority has been displaced by institutional and subjective logics that are producing majoritarian tyranny. It may not be possible to reconstitute the mass par­ty of the 20th century. Pakistanis who want to overturn the establishment-centric system and institute genuine economic and political democracy have to think more deeply about building a meaningful political form rather than limiting themselves to outrage in an online space already dominated by the right.

The Tyranny of Power Asymmetry and Dependence
Thursday, July 2, 2020
The Tyranny of Power Asymmetry and Dependence

Maleeha Lodhi, former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, UK and UN, in Dawn (June 29, 2020)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: United States Institute of Peace)

The Tyranny of Power Asymmetry and Dependence

Pakistan’s foreign policy objectives have principally been shaped by its geostrategic location in a tough neighborhood. This explains why security concerns had such a dominant influence. The sweep of foreign policy over the decades reveals a complex interplay between internal and external factors, and between domestic goals and an ever-changing international environment.

Of course, big power interests had a major impact on policy, intersecting with elite interests to sometimes complicate if not aggravate Pakistan’s challenges. An unedifying aspect of this was a mindset of dependence fostered among officials during prolonged periods of the country’s alignments. This dependence proved to be habit forming. Reliance on external financial assistance created a perverse incentive for urgent economic reform and serious domestic resource mobilization. It also encouraged ruling elites to constantly look outside to address financial deficits and other sources of internal vulnerabilities, even see outsiders as catalytic agents to promote development and solve problems at home.

The most recent turning point has seen Pakistan tie its strategic future more firmly to China while facing an implacably hostile India. In fact, the country’s daunting foreign policy challenges call for a more imaginative strategy to navigate a more complex and unsettled multipolar world.

The world has changed fundamentally but habits ingrained over the years by the ruling elite have yet to do so. Pakistan learnt to rely on itself for its defense when it pursued and acquired the strategic capability to deter aggression. But the habit persists of seeking help from foreign donors to deal with chronic financing gaps — frequently dramatized by frantic trips to Arab capitals. A similar lesson has yet to be learnt about financial self-reliance which is only possible through bold fiscal reform and a reordering of budget priorities. The tyranny of dependence waits to be overcome.