The high-profile inaugural ceremony of the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline marks a watershed in the foreign policy of Pakistan. There was an interesting altercation during the recent weekly briefing at the Foreign Office:

Question.   “As Pakistan is going to sign the IP gas pipeline, but it seems that Pakistan is in a fix on account of US pressure on Pakistan because of Iran being sanctioned. There is a point of view that Pakistan would not be in a position to carry out this project under international obligations and pressures. As President Zardari said that the IP gas pipeline would be pursued in national interest. Is it in national interest or public demand?”

Answer.   “We are not in a fix. We are very clear about this project. It is in our national interest to go ahead with this project. Pakistan being an energy-deficient country, is hugely suffering both economically and socially. Yes, we have seen some reports and a statement by the American Ambassador. We know about their concerns, but we expect and hope that all our friends, including the US, would show more understanding on this issue.”

So, the emerging regional pivot in our foreign policy is in our national interest; it is, indeed, reflective of public aspirations as well. Against the context of national security, the core function of diplomacy is about dealing with immediate and distant neighbours. Pakistan wishes to have a peaceful periphery; it is in its self-interest to work with the rest of Asia, as a whole as well as in the context of its various sub-regional denominations. Without enduring primacy in one’s own neighbourhood, no country can become a credible player on the larger canvas.

Likewise, while living in a troubled region, it is not possible to concentrate on domestic issues. Bad influences from troubled neighbourhood invariably permeate and influence the domestic dynamics. Hence, there is a centrality of peaceful neighbourhood with peace at home as well as peace abroad, including broader regional and global perspectives.

Though creating a stable and prosperous neighbourhood is the key to redefining Pakistan’s regional and global roles, it is a task easier said than done. Caution is due; treading this path should not end up in the appeasement of neighbours at the cost of core national interests. Fundamental to the strategy of constructing a peaceful periphery is the resolution of longstanding problems with the neighbours.

In Pakistan’s context, at the top of this list is the Jammu and Kashmir dispute with India. Unless the differences are first removed on the basis of justice and fair play, the rhetoric of artificial bonhomie crumbles the moment any misunderstanding occurs between the neighbours.

Over the last one year or so, Pakistan has taken several steps that point towards its focus for regional outreach. Emanating signals indicate that there is substantial political will to move the South and Central Asian regions towards shared prosperity. While demonstrating such will, Pakistan has taken keen interest in expediting certain initiatives to promote economic cooperation in bilateral, sub-regional, regional and trans-regional frameworks. The grant of MFN status to India, Afghan Transit Trade Agreement, IP gas pipeline and change in the management of Gwader Port are some of these steps.

Of these, first two became a reality via American persuasion and WTO obligations respectively; and the last two have materialised out of domestic and regional compulsions, despite the US pressures to the contrary. Projects like CASA 1000 and TAPI pipeline would also ensure yet greater connectivity between Central and South Asia. The proliferation of trade would further integrate Pakistan with its regional neighbours in a more substantial and sustainable way, through a healthy balance of interdependencies.

However, in the context of operationalisation of MFN status to India, Pakistani stakeholders have serious reservations due to India’s non-tariff barriers. There is a need to assess and evaluate the extent to which level playing field will be available to Pakistani exporters to India.

Likewise, in the case of gas purchase projects, pricing needs careful scrutiny, buying gas at around 70 percent of crude oil will make it unaffordable for domestic consumers and the electricity generated by expensive gas would also be costly.

Asia is no longer the backyard of global politics of cold war era that allowed Pakistan to deal with Asian states mostly under bilateral frameworks. Though Pakistan is an active participant in the activities of most of the regional forums, like ECO, SAARC, SCO, etc, there is no forum representative of Asia as a whole.

Pakistan should float the idea for such structure, so that new emphasis on the ‘regional’ approach in Pakistani foreign policy is constructed with due regard to the global perspective embedded in Asia’s international relations. Though non-materialisation of President Vladimir Putin’s visit was a setback to Pakistan’s effort towards securing its regional moorings, hopefully, alternative methods could be found to achieve this objective.

The journey towards regionalism is not likely to be smooth and without pressures. As things are moving ahead with appreciable speed on the front of IP project, the US is all-out to exert pressure on Pakistan, on an issue that is purely a bilateral transaction between the two neighbours.

During his recent visit to Tarbela, the US Ambassador, Mr Richard Olson, reiterated his country’s opposition to the IP project, while stating that Washington supports the TAPI project. Though the Ambassador was there in connection with the completion of the first phase of up-gradation of power station that materialised through American aid, he made it a point to create a bad taste, on this happy occasion, by making unwarranted comments.

The much-delayed IP pipeline project is, in fact, just a beginning, as it would not bridge the entire gap between the demand and supply of gas. Pakistan would definitely need to pursue the TAPI initiative as well. It looks forward to mustering American help in the early completion of TAPI project, but not at the cost of IP. Moreover, IP has reached advanced stages of implementation, while TAPI is just on papers since the 1990s.

The regional factor is also of vital importance for wrapping up the Afghan conflict. Without undertaking by all immediate neighbours of Afghanistan, durable peace in the war-torn country would remain a pipedream. Fast emerging national consensus on engaging Pakistani Taliban in purpose-oriented talks and facilitation of Afghan Taliban for taking part in the political reconciliation processes of their country are  some other omens that would have a healthy impact on the regional landscape and domestic dynamics. Pakistan needs to engage the other five immediate neighbours of Afghanistan for agreeing on a code of conduct in post-2014 Afghanistan.

This, however, does not mean that Pakistan should limit its outreach or confine itself to regional orientation only. Meaningful roles at the UN, the OIC, the NAM, etc would help Pakistan maintain its appearance on broader horizons. National consensus is on a balanced foreign policy aimed at finding regional solutions to regional problems, while staying relevant at the global level.

The writer is a retired air commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University. Email: khalid3408@gmail.com