Foreign Policy Watch: India-Pakistan

How Pakistan Plays the world


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: SEATO and SENTO

Mains level: Paper 2- India-Pak relations

The article explains evolution of Pakistan’s approach towards forming alliances and maintaining strategic autonomy against the backdrop of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

New dynamic Pakistan has to face

  • As the US withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, Pakistan is eager to build a relationship with Washington that is not tied to US stakes in Afghanistan.
  • Pakistan does not want to be totally alienated from U.S. in the new geopolitical jousting between the US and China.
  • How Pakistan copes with the new dynamic between the US and China as well as manages the deepening crisis in Afghanistan would be of great interest to India.

Striking the balance between autonomy and alliance

  • Autonomy is about the basic impulse for enhancing the degree of one’s freedom.
  • Alliances are about coping with real or perceived threats to one’s security.
  • Both are natural trends in international politics.
  • Joining an alliance does not mean ceding one’s sovereignty.
  • Within every alliance, there is a perennial tension between seeking more commitments from the partner in return for limiting one’s own.

Explaining Pakistan’s approach to alliances

  • Pakistan’s insecurities in relation to India meant it was eager for alliances.
  •  And as the Anglo-Americans scouted for partners in the crusade against global communism, Pakistan signed a bilateral security treaty with the US and joined the South East Asia Treaty Organisation and Central Treaty Organisation in the mid-1950s.
  • Rather than target Pakistan’s alliance with a West that was intensely hostile to Beijing in the 1950s, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai saw room to exploit Pakistan’s insecurities on India.
  • While Pakistan’s ties with the US went up and down, its relationship with China has seen steady expansion.
  • Pakistan’s relations with the US flourished  after the Soviet Union sent its troops into Afghanistan at the end of 1979.
  • The US and Pakistan reconnected in 2001 as Washington sought physical access and intelligence support to sustain its intervention in Afghanistan following the attacks on September 11.
  • Now the US wants Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to accept a peaceful transition to a new political order in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s ability to adapt to shifting geopolitical trends

  • Pakistan worries that its leverage in U.S. will diminish once the US turns its back on Afghanistan and towards the Indo-Pacific.
  • Pakistan does not want to get in the Indo-Pacific crossfire between the US and China.
  • It would also like to dent India’s growing importance in America’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
  • India should not underestimate Pakistan’s agency in adapting to the shifting global currents.
  • Pakistan has been good at using its great power alliances to its own benefit.

Three problems that complicates Pakistan’s strategic autonomy

  • 1) Relative economic decline: Pakistan’s expected aggregate GDP at around $300 billion in 2021 is 10 times smaller than India’s.
  • 2) Obsession with Kashmir: Pakistan’s enduring obsessions with separating Kashmir from India, and extending its political sway over Afghanistan; both look elusive despite massive political investments by the Pakistan army.
  • Unsurprisingly, there is a recognition that Pakistan needs reorientation — from geopolitics to geoeconomics and permanent war with neighbours to peace of some sorts.
  • 3) Using religion as political instrument: Turning Islam into a political instrument and empowering religious extremism seemed clever a few decades ago.
  • However, today those forces have acquired a life of their own and severely constrain the capacity of the Pakistani state to build internal coherence and widen international options.


It will be unwise to rule out Pakistan’s positive reinvention; no country has a bigger stake in it than India. For now, though, Pakistan offers a cautionary tale on the dangers of squandering a nation’s strategic advantages — including a critical geopolitical location that it had inherited and the powerful partnerships that came its way.

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