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After decades of status quo, can Pakistan remain a neutral player on the world stage?

Foreign Minister of Pakistan Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Hissein Brahim Taha, Secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), hold a press conference within the 48th Foreign Ministers Council Meeting of Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Islamabad, Pakistan on March 23, 2022 [Muhammed Semih Uğurlu - Anadolu Agency]

When Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, hit out at the European Union and Western envoys who urged him to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, asking if they thought Pakistan was their "slave" and enquiring why similar demands were not made to India, it cemented a precedent that had long been a hallmark of Pakistani politics.

That hallmark was not the long-standing rivalry against India, nor was it even pointing out the hypocrisy of Western leaders and their standards, but it was the phenomenon of neutrality in regional disputes or conflicts.

Khan summed it up perfectly when he stated in the same speech that "We are friends with Russia, and we are also friends with America; we are friends with China and with Europe; we are not in any camp." Pakistan, he emphasised, will remain neutral and work to end the war in Ukraine.

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Throughout the decades, Pakistan has successfully avoided being pulled into regional disputes or quagmires which mire it down in rival geopolitical spheres of influence. There are, of course, scattered exceptions such as its military assistance to the Arab states in their wars against Israel, or the transfer of arms to the Bosnians during the conflict in the Balkans.

A primary reason for that may be the fact that it already has a long-standing rivalry – both covert and overt throughout – with neighbouring India, which has been very much an existential issue for Islamabad. But it is also because remaining neutral was always a key survival strategy for the developing nation that is Pakistan.

Even its involvement in the US-led 'war on terror' was – aside from a recent change in leadership – largely due to enormous pressure to comply and cooperate with the campaign amid the Bush administration's "with us or against us" policy, or else western nations may have confirmed their suspicion of Pakistan as a 'state sponsor of terror'.

In other words, the country's decision to align itself with the US – and now with China – was based on a practical realism and the tacit acceptance that its very survival was at stake.

Neutrality under threat

That dynamic does not mean that Islamabad has always been a victim of its own circumstances, though, but its deep military-dominated Establishment has mastered the art of using that position as a way of serving the country's own interests.

As former CIA official, Douglas London, described it, he watched "Pakistani officials masterfully execute a denial and deception campaign that skilfully manipulated senior US defence officials, diplomats and visiting congressional delegations. Successive US officials believed they had established personal rapport with their various Pakistani counterparts and found them reasonable, charming and accommodating".

Aside from the country's pivot between America and China, its stance of neutrality has been seen most in regards to disputes in the Middle East.

Pakistan's refrain from taking sides in the Gulf States' misadventures in their region is a prime example, with its neutrality seen during the blockade and boycott of Qatar, led by Saudi Arabia, in 2017 and the Saudi-led military coalition's operation in Yemen.

Despite Riyadh's request and insistence that Islamabad contribute forces to the coalition, Pakistan repeatedly refused to do so. This was, at least, before the military decided to join the Saudi-led 'Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition' – headed by former Pakistani Chief of Army staff, General Raheel Sharif, no less – and indirectly assist the Kingdom by providing training and advice.

In the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, too, Pakistan has tried to maintain a balancing act, reiterating the importance of diplomatic ties and security cooperation with both of its allies and dodging both of their attempts to set Islamabad against the other.

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Even with regard to Syria, Pakistan has maintained relations with the war-torn and outcast regime of Bashar Al-Assad throughout the decade, reflecting the realism – and perhaps anti-colonial stance – which it and the military Establishment operate from.

Such balance, however, has seemingly been dwindling over the past year. There are credible reports that Islamabad is coming down hard on Tehran due to apparent revelations that Iranian intelligence services have been funding and assisting Balochi seperatist militants that conduct cross-border attacks from neighbouring Iran.

At the same time, Pakistan has been drawing ever closer to Saudi Arabia. Following a tumultuous few years in which relations between the two reached an all-time low, due to the Pakistani government's demand that the Kingdom do more to support an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit on the Kashmir issue, Riyadh finally revived its cash and oil support to Islamabad in October last year.

Since then, relations between the two appeared to have reset and improved, with cooperation advancing in recent months in the form of the recruitment of skilled workers, joint mechanised training exercises, and the sharing of intelligence.

The Establishment vs. Khan

Many attribute the rescuing of Pakistani relations with Saudi Arabia as a legacy of the military-led Establishment – otherwise ominously known as the 'deep state' – and that is where the Islamic Republic's vision and policies become more complex, because that entity and the country's civilian governments have often had divergent interests.

The Establishment aims to maintain diplomacy and neutrality on the world stage, retaining the status quo. According to media reports from both Pakistan and its rival, India, it sees Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and his civilian government as an upstart who risks ruining decades of diplomatic foundations and relations with countries in the region and beyond.

That is why, following the diplomatic fallout with Saudi Arabia in 2020, it was the Chief of Army staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, himself who visited the Kingdom in an attempt to mend relations.

That has been part of the military's domain: not only to externally defend the country but also to constantly steer its foreign policy on the path of stability. And that steering can be done through various means – from the outright takeover of civilian governments to the simple application of charm offensives launched on foreign diplomats.

According to Pakistan's opposition which is currently driving efforts to oust him, the Establishment's apparent distrust of Khan's vision and diplomatic capabilities is also why the army is either withdrawing its support for him or being neutral about whom to politically back.

Most importantly, the army reportedly wants to maintain relations with its old ally, the US, while at the same time building ties with China. As a source with close ties to the military – who wished to remain anonymous – informed me, it "wants to stay with America" and to have China as a sort of co-guarantor. Such is the phenomenon of neutrality and balance that is so deeply embedded into Islamabad's political psyche.

Amid a changing political landscape, fresh conflicts on the world stage and the continued struggle for influence between the military-led Establishment and civilian government, Pakistan may find it increasingly difficult to maintain its neutrality in the coming years.

From Iran to Saudi Arabia, Western nations to Russia or China, attempts to pull the country into a sphere of influence will only become more intense. As elements within Pakistan – both Khan and the military in their own ways – openly aim to maintain the status quo in its foreign policy, its struggle will be to prevent circumstances from forcing it to take sides.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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