Every country has a unique geography and geopolitical positioning, but it is not always possible for all states to harness their geopolitical positioning, either because they lack the political will to do so, or because the overall regional or global geopolitics suppresses such a will. Nevertheless, understanding one’s geopolitical/strategic positioning is the first step in strengthening one’s standing in bilateral, regional and global relations.
Pakistan’s unique longitudinal geography allows it to wash its shores with the Arabian Sea at its south, and to shake hands with Central Asia at its north. Pakistan’s historical and geographical contingency with Afghanistan has allowed it to support the brotherly country in its fight for freedom from Russian and American occupations; our neighbouring with Iran in a unique way that is different from its Arab neighbours to its west, allows us to have a relatively unbiased and even normative relation with it.
At the northeastern and eastern proximities, Pakistan touches two giant states: China and India — two states with the world’s biggest populations and both harbouring regional ambitions. China being Pakistan’s all-weather friend since the independence of the two states and India being an opponent to both of us.
Because of Pakistan’s geography, India feels severed from larger Asia, especially from Iran and Russia, whom it considered allies till recently. India’s foreign policy parted from Russia when it withdrew from Afghanistan and the weak alliance between India and Iran cracked when India decided to end oil trade with Iran under US-sanctions. After the Russo-Afghan War, India hooked up with the US in order to gain influence in Afghanistan that could serve it as a jumping board into Central Asia.
Central Asian states gained their independence from Russia in 1990, when the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan led to its dismantling. Because of the fact that Central Asia consists of all Sunni Muslim states, they have a natural ideological bonding with Pakistan and Afghanistan as compared to Iran or the Arab states that are further away. Vast hydrocarbon reserves were identified in the landlocked states of Central Asia in the 1990s. Being deep inside Asia, they need a route to the sea to export their oil and gas, and the route via Afghanistan and Pakistan becomes the shortest, best choice.
The 20 years of US occupation of Afghanistan has delayed the possibility of such ventures, as the US and its defence partner India have endeavoured to lay siege to Afghanistan, not only to get control on Afghan mineral resources but also to become the sole trading partners with the Central Asian states, an ambition the US and India have failed to accomplish because of Pakistan’s backing of freedom fighters in Afghanistan. The Central Asian states are also Russia’s near abroad and for this reason Russia too does not want the US or India to dominate Afghanistan. But more than anyone else, Pakistan feels strangled by India from three sides if it succeeds to entrench itself in Afghanistan, and considers India’s presence in Afghanistan an existential threat that has to be leveled at any cost.
Pakistan’s geography has also brought it ever closer to China, as it offers China the shortest route to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. Because wars in the Middle East impede other Belt and Road routes to the Arabian Sea, China has proclaimed CPEC as the flagship project of its Belt and Road Initiative. But that is not all, for China Pakistan’s friendship is a dear one also because this geographically contingent bulwark alliance is proving to be a partnership that can subdue India’s ambitions to become a regional player. So, China and Pakistan complement each other in demanding territories that India has falsely occupied; and in the same vein while India sits on top of Pakistan’s waters coming from Occupied Kashmir, China sits on top of India’s waters originating from Tibet.
So, as China shows high prospects for being the regional hegemon of the coming decades, Pakistan has chosen wisely to ally with it. As China grew economically, it also garnered another vital ally, Russia, who has opened its arms to several BRI projects on and through its soil. The two, complement each other’s foreign policies and repel a common adversary, the US. Russia’s coupling up with Iran and Turkey to take control of Syria makes for an overall alliance framework that Pakistan would comfortably fit into.
On the other hand, Turkey’s opposite in the Islamic World, Saudi Arabia, is also a long-cherished all-weather ally of Pakistan. The recent rift between the two states over support for the Kashmir Issue has raised some eyebrows, but that does not undermine the long-standing strategic alliance that Pakistan enjoys with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, wherein Pakistani forces have trained their armies and navies. For instance, the first three chiefs of the UAE air force were all officers of the Pakistani air force.
The 41-state, Saudi-led Islamic military alliance created in 2015 is also headed by Pakistan’s former chief of army staff General Raheel Sharif. Though still at an infancy stage, the alliance which is larger than NATO (30 members), can be a potential global force for protecting the interests of Muslim states. Pakistan’s leadership of the Muslim ummah is well-precedented, as our forces have remained actively present in war-fronts from Bosnia to Sri Lanka and from Afghanistan to Somalia, wherever we found the chance to come to the aid of our brethren.
Pakistan’s refusal to partake in the Saudi-Yemen war may have estranged its relations with the Saudis, but this also makes Pakistan a normative between the Shia and Sunni powers that have been forced to fight the proxy war in the Middle East. This means that Pakistan’s foreign policy has been based on advocacy of peace and safeguard of friends and not on oppression and aggression. That Pakistan’s foundations are ideological, is at least shown in our foreign policy, which has been outward and far-reaching from the beginning, and that its active posture has accrued for it a global role that awaits its ‘will’ and ‘realisation’.