Pakistan’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar
Pakistan remained in global news the whole of last week due to the arrest of its former Prime Minister Imran Khan. But one specific development from that country that went relatively unnoticed was the visit of their junior Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar to Stockholm to participate in an event on the Indo-Pacific.
Khar visited Sweden on May 13 to participate in the 2nd EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum at the joint invitation of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell and Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar also attended the conference.
At the meeting, Khar called for enhanced cooperation between Europe and the Asia-Pacific mainly in trade, investment and sustainable development. The basic ethos of the Indo-Pacific policy is to keep the sea-lanes open for fairer and smoother trade, free from coercion and belligerence under the architecture of “free and open” Indo-Pacific.
This is not the first time Pakistan has made an attempt to enter the Indo-Pacific framework.
It was Pakistan’s former Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa who had expressed interest to enter the strategic grouping when he visited Belgium in February 2022, but the discussions never went further, according to sources in the Pakistan government.
During her visit, Khar also met Borrell separately and discussed “further deepening of Pakistan’s multidimensional relations with the EU”.
According to Borrell, the Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum was a “call for action as a demonstration of the EU’s continuous commitment to the Indo-Pacific region”.
In the recently released US National Security Strategy (NSS), Washington has called China as the most “consequential threat” with the Indo-Pacific as the new battleground for strategic as well as economic competition and India as it partner with which the US shares a common vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, while Pakistan has not found any mention.
Interestingly, Khar’s attendance at a major conference on the Indo-Pacific did not upset the Chinese at all, and they remained mum on the issue despite Beijing’s open criticism of the Indo-Pacific policy at various international fora.
“The Asia-Pacific is no one’s backyard and should not become an arena for big power contest. No attempt to wage a new cold war will ever be allowed by the people or by the times,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said last year at the APEC CEO Summit in Bangkok.
India Must Remain Vigilant
India’s role currently stands central to the US’ vision of Indo-Pacific as a major counterweight against Beijing. However, the same vision takes another colour when seen from the perspective of EU, which has time and again shown interest in including Pakistan under the larger Indo-Pacific strategy.
However, needless to say that New Delhi will never be comfortable with Pakistan becoming an Indo-Pacific member with EU’s support. And, the US may not also rule out the option of embracing Islamabad into the framework entirely if it has to win the competition with Beijing. But then it will also have to consider the close friendship between Pakistan and China.
“Indo-Pacific itself is increasingly central to the direction of global politics. Among the issues that it throws up, are the problems inherent in the established model of globalization. Recent events have highlighted the problems with economic concentration, as also the need for diversification,” said Jaishankar at the Stockholm event last week.
While it is clear that the US wants to keep Pakistan at bay for now from its vision of the Indo-Pacific policy, the EU is making serious efforts to let Islamabad in.
India, on the other hand, has made the Indo-Pacific strategic construct as one of the main pillars of its foreign and security policy. So it needs to watch out for signs when Pakistan is trying to make inroads in the garb of trade but their ultimate aim could be to sit inside the US-led forums thereby enabling China to see what’s happening inside.
Apart from the strategic point of view China is also worried of growing influence of the US in the Asia-Pacific region because of the effectiveness of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — a mega trade pact that Beijing is a member of with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
RCEP, which came into force on January 1, 2022, is gradually taking off with all member countries now ratifying it and implementing the pact. China would like to have its own sphere of influence on the supply chains that get created as an outcome of RCEP.
From the security point of view, Beijing’s increasing maritime disputes in terms of island-building and militarisation in the South China Sea have heightened tensions with its neighbours.
India walked out of RCEP in 2019 but it is worried about China’s increasing belligerence in the maritime domain which is the reason why New Delhi has aligned more closely with the US.
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