Pakistan is first South Asian country to release such a document; says rise of Hindu politics in India is ‘concerning’ but hopes to improve relationship. Other highlights include worries about two-front war with China and India, desire for more US cooperation and need to boost regional trade

Pakistan last week launched its first-ever national security policy, listing economic security as its top priority even as it continues to emphasise military security. Still, the shift is striking given that Pakistan has been at odds with its nuclear-armed rival India for years and has had to deal with violent Islamist militancy and separatist movements.

The country has also been caught up in two wars in Afghanistan, firstly from 1979 when Soviet troops invaded. The second time was from 2001 when the US sent in troops after the 9/11 terror attack in what turned out to be a 20-year mission before the Taliban regained control last summer.

After suffering chronic financial ill-health and regular bail outs from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Pakistan’s approach now focuses on seeking peace with its neighbours and exploring opportunities to make Pakistan a trade and investment hub.

The new policy, released on January 14, makes Pakistan the first South Asian country to publish such a document, although only a 62-page redacted version of the full 110 pages was laid out for the public. The rest is confidential.

Does This Mean Pakistan Is Pursuing Peace With India?

Pakistan and India have fought four wars since 1947 when the independent, Muslim-majority nation of Pakistan was formed and the Hindu-majority India gained independence from British rule. Most recently, the two nations had a skirmish between their air forces, in 2019.

Three of the wars were over Jammu and Kashmir, a Muslim majority territory administered by India where a Pakistan-backed rebellion has continued for decades by Kashmiris who want independence or to be part of Pakistan.

India and Pakistan have suspended talks at the highest political level since late 2015 but do share some common platforms including the UN General Assembly or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

However, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), made up of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, has not been effective for some years due to the strained relationship between India and Pakistan.

Now, with Indian troops in an ongoing stand-off with Chinese troops at their shared border in the Himalayas – about 3,440km (2,100 miles) long – and the two sides competing to build infrastructure along it, there are concerns India may have to fight a two-front war if its relations worsen further with both China and Pakistan.

A two-front war is also a worry for Pakistan. Despite the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year and the two nations’ shared border and links – they are trading partners with various ethnic, cultural, and religious connections – Pakistan’s western border remains restive.

India and Pakistan agreed on a ceasefire in February last year along the border, also known as the ‘Line of Control’, and despite some complaints about violations, the agreement has held so far.

While Pakistan’s new national security policy talks about improving relations with India, it maintains that resolving the Jammu and Kashmir issue is at the centre of the bilateral relationship.

But analysts say including Jammu and Kashmir makes the possibility of talks remote.

Still, Pakistani political scientist Ayesha Siddiqa from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) said Pakistan realises that all it can do about the Kashmir issue is to “contest the issue diplomatically and wait until something changes drastically in the Kashmir Valley”.

Islamabad also remains wary of the brand of governance espoused by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, saying in the document: “The rise of Hindutva-driven politics in India is deeply concerning and impacts Pakistan’s immediate security.”

Pakistan’s worries about the widening gap between the two nations’ conventional weapons and India’s access to advanced technology were also referenced in the document.

Interestingly, a 100-year no war pact and resuming dialogue by putting the Kashmir issue to one side, reported just before the document’s release, were not mentioned in it.

The reports, quoting an unnamed Pakistani official’s briefing in Islamabad, were carried by several newspapers and television channels in India and some Pakistani newspapers including the English daily, The Express Tribune, although it is unclear if the remarks were official or not.

Why Did Pakistan Choose To Release Its National Security Policy Now?

The primary push behind putting out the document seems to be the economic crisis faced by Pakistan, which experts attribute to poor fiscal management. Foreign investors have also been staying away because Islamabad has not been tough on militants. The policy document, though, claims the government has a zero-tolerance policy for groups involved in terrorist activities.

Since 1950 Pakistan has been bailed out by the IMF 22 times including in November 2021, that time to the tune of a US$6 billion loan. In December the World Bank also loaned the country US$195 million to improve its electricity distribution.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has talked about a “one-dimensional mindset” prevailing in Pakistan due to worries about a war with India. He said the country needed IMF loans as it “lacked a plan to secure itself economically”.

Siddiqa from SOAS said the new policy document had been released “before any change in government takes place in the next six months to a year and commits the political class and future regime to it”.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at Washington’s Wilson Centre, said: “By emphasising catchphrases like geo-economics' and connectivity, it (Pakistan) wants to convey to the sceptical West that it is a responsible and peaceful regional player.”

Siddiqa said that although Pakistan is trying to signal to the world that it is a normal country, much is about pretence rather than what it really wants to change.

What About Pakistan’s Ties With China And The US?

On China and Pakistan, the document talks about deep-rooted historical ties, shared interests, mutual understanding and strategic convergence. The mega infrastructure project ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ is described as one with support across Pakistan and one that can jump-start Pakistan’s economy and domestic growth.

However, there is a deliberate attempt to downgrade China’s importance, according to Kugelman. “Pakistan may be trying to send a message that Beijing doesn’t occupy as dominant a role in its national security calculations as many believe it does,” he said.

Regarding the US, there seems to be an attempt to ignore the current strain in bilateral ties. Although the Pakistani Prime Minister has not received a call from US President Joe Biden since he assumed office, the document talks about the long history of bilateral cooperation between the two sides. It also describes the US as “critical” for regional peace and stability and glosses over its current tussle with China.

The document acknowledges that cooperation between the US and Pakistan has narrowed down to counterterrorism only, and hoped other areas can also be worked on together soon. Iran and Afghanistan are mentioned, but most countries in the Gulf and West Asia are clubbed together as are Russia and Central Asia.

What Have Reactions Been To The Document?

Kugelman believes Pakistan’s claim of zero tolerance towards terrorism will “harden India’s view that Islamabad isn’t truthful about its continued ties to terrorists”.

Since the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan last year and the Taliban coming to power, Pakistan has seen several fatal attacks, according to data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

Most of the violence has been attributed to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an offshoot of the Afghan militant group, encouraged by developments next door. Chinese assets have also been targeted, including attacks in northern Pakistan and the southern port of Gwadar.

But India argues that while Pakistan is fighting terror groups like the TTP, it has not taken any credible action against terrorists like Hafiz Saeed or Masood Azhar who have a proven record of carrying out attacks in India. Under international pressure they are no longer in the limelight but Delhi contends they are still being sheltered by Pakistan and can be deployed against India in future.

While there has been no official response from India, C Raja Mohan, a visiting research professor of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore said in an opinion piece in The Indian Express: “Change is inevitable in Pakistan. There is no guarantee that the change will be definitive and for the good. But if it is, Delhi should be prepared to respond positively.”

However, there is an inherent dichotomy in Pakistan’s strategy of pursuing a geo-economics strategy to encourage regional trade, particularly with India, while also pushing an adversarial relation with India, which is regarded as its main source of threat.

Sharat Sabharwal, a retired Indian diplomat who served in Pakistan from 2009 to 2013 as India’s High Commissioner said Pakistan needs India’s cooperation “to make its policy of boosting regional trade successful, as India is not only the largest country but also the largest market in South Asia. However, how does it expect Delhi’s participation and support if it continues to be hostile towards India?”

He said Pakistan needs to resolve this dichotomy “before expecting trade and economic cooperation in the region to take-off”.