Pakistan’s new strategic pivot: geo-economics

And digital technology must not be forgotten

On 14 December 2021, addressing the Margalla Dialogue Forum 2021 on “Foreign Policy Challenges of Future in changing Geo-political Landscape”, a debate organized by the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI), Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said, “Indeed, we live in times of uncertainty. The world order seems to be in a state of severe stress and disarray. In these times, foreign policy and geo-politics is largely linked to geo-economics. I have consistently maintained, from here on, that the economy is in many ways our strategic compass with a dominant presence as a priority of foreign policy.”

The major drawback inherent in the statement is that it is Qureshi’s personal opinion, and not a declaration on behalf of Pakistan’s Foreign Office. Nevertheless, in the statement, Qureshi has admitted that Pakistan’s foreign policy has been in the throes of seeking relevance. Two points are implied. First, long ago, the world went economic but Pakistan failed to read the transferal. Second, anchored in geography, Pakistan’s priority for politics has not paid dividends. It is high time Pakistan forsook its denial mode and moved its focus to economy.

- Advertisement -

For the failure to shift the focus of the foreign policy to economy, Qureshi also mentioned the reason: the mindset. In this regard, Qureshi expressed his wish explicitly: “Pakistan as a geoeconomic centre with unparalleled regional connectivity has to come as a mindset, top down… We have had to reset the existing geopolitical mindset and embrace the importance of geo-economics.” That is, the mindset infatuated with ideological conflict and geopolitical strategies, which brought wars, drugs, terrorism and instability to Pakistan, has to be reformed. In this statement, the major admission is that the geopolitical mindset is still dominant, hindering the path to economic prosperity. Even today, Pakistan is beset with the ravages of archaic thought. The Pakistanis have to shift their mindset from geopolitics to geo-economics.

Qureshi is uttering the right sounds, against the background that the Cold War (1945-1991) remained anchored in ideology, dictating its terms to politics. After the end of the Cold War, the world made the economy its priority and the economy started dictating its terms to politics. Compared to that, the Pakistanis remained obsessed with the idea that ideology was still relevant and that ideology could bring up another Cold War which could benefit them owing to Pakistan’s geographical placement at the crossroads of South, Central and West Asia. The Pakistanis have spent three decades waiting for the delivery on the idea but in vain. The mindset created or shaped during the Cold War kept on asserting itself even after the end of the war. The hangover of the Cold War still lingers on in many brains in varied forms.

On the occasion, Qureshi also said, “For a shift from geopolitics to geo-economics, Pakistan wants a relationship with the USA in sync with our changed priority.” This is where the ordeal lies. Qureshi did not generalize the shift in priority but localized it to the Pak-US bilateral confines. Nevertheless, the reason for the confinement or the selective application is fathomable. That is, Qureshi did not want to give an impression that generalization could also impinge upon Pakistan’s relations with India. Such is a constraint Pakistan has been enmeshed in. Yet, Qureshi felt forced to say that Pakistan alone could not achieve the goal of geo-economic strength unless it was at peace with its archrival, India, as Qureshi said, “Pakistan’s quest for peace and geo-economic strength cannot be a solo performance. It takes two to tango.”

In short, Qureshi is right in saying that Pakistan has to make a strategic pivot from geo-politics to geo-economics. That is, seeking the benefit of its geography, Pakistan’s orientation (or preference) has to be shifted from politics to economy.

Focusing on Pak-US relations, Qureshi said, “Pakistan does not want a transactional relationship with the USA. We want multifaceted ties that are not susceptible to the vagaries of regional and international policies.” Nevertheless, Qureshi was aware of the USA’s reservations on Pakistan’s growing trade relations with China. This was why he tried to strike a balance between the USA and China by saying, “Enhanced trade and investment ties with the USA and cooperation in regard to regional connectivity can work to our mutual benefit.” The statement was in line with Qureshi’s utterance on the occasion, “a country like Pakistan …cannot make binary choices. We will remain equidistant, accessible to all, reaching out to all.”

Two points are significant here. First, squeezed in between the national interests of the USA and China, Pakistan has been making efforts to seek economic benefits from both countries. Pakistan cannot make an either-or choice, as the binary choice, but Pakistan is not alone in the equation. The USA is driven by its own priorities, and so is China. Much depends upon whether or not they offer Pakistan sufficient leeway diplomatically to circumvent the binary choice. Second, Pakistan is not in a position to present itself as equidistant to both the USA and China, even if Pakistan claims that it prefers geo-economics to geopolitics. The reason is that Pakistan has fostered different kinds of relations with both the countries. The past haunts the present and the present dictates the future.

In his address, Qureshi also laid an overly greater emphasis on digital technology by mentioning phrases such as digital diplomacy, digital economy, digital growth, digital alliance, digital sphere, digital space, and so on. Many people believe that digital technology is reshaping inter-state relations. Social media is considered a source of connection conveying one’s message instantly, as the former US President Donald Trump used to do. Nevertheless, social media remains an informal medium that can be used to convey kneejerk reactions but not a thought-through answer. Using social media to convey critical messages, other than pleasantries, has an evanescent life. Diplomatic outreach does not rely on digital technology, especially when formal relations between two countries are concerned.

- Advertisement -

Qureshi not only linked the foreign policy with the economy but also with digital technology. That is, the better the economy; the better the future of the foreign policy. Similarly, the better the control over the digital sphere, the more the chances for amassing and monopolizing data, and the better the chances of influencing mindsets, controlling narratives and crafting perceptions.

In short, Qureshi is right in saying that Pakistan has to make a strategic pivot from geo-politics to geo-economics. That is, seeking the benefit of its geography, Pakistan’s orientation (or preference) has to be shifted from politics to economy.

Dr Qaisar Rashid
Dr Qaisar Rashid
The writer is a freelance journalist and can be reached at [email protected]

Must Read

AFD pledges $55 mln to support Pakistan’s Polio Program

ISLAMABAD: French Development Agency (AFD) has pledged $55 million to help support Pakistan's Polio Programme operations, in efforts to interrupt poliovirus transmission. With this the...