Hina Rabbani Khar on Parkistan's Foreign Relations

You have a new prime minister, Imran Khan, formerly a political outsider. As someone now out of the government, do you see this as a break with the ‘feudal politics’ of the past? With the exception of the prime minister himself, the holders of key positions are people who have served in government under different political parties. Prime Minister Khan is surrounded by old-time politicians who have jumped on the bandwagon of whoever is succeeding. At the start he came up with a thin and efficient cabinet but now it is growing on a weekly basis. There is a show of doing things differently, such as by auctioning off government cars. But these cars will have to be replaced to transport foreign dignitaries attending summits. So far, the reality of the government is that it is pretty much the same, if not worse than it was before. The United States has cut security-related aid to Pakistan, but is still hoping to reset relations. What could emerge from such a reset? Without wishing it away, one just needs to be realistic about it and say, ‘because of what is happening in Afghanistan, the US finds it very difficult to engage with Pakistan in an intensive manner. It is in the US’s interest to blame Pakistan for everything that happens and goes wrong.’ To expect strong strategic ties with the US is a non-starter. It’s not realistic, and it is not happening given the regional dynamics. Having said that, it is not in Pakistan’s interest to be on the wrong side of the United States. We have been trying for the past 50 years to get on the same page as the Americans on our views on Afghanistan. It hasn’t happened yet and it’s not likely to happen in the next few years. The simple reason is that we are part of the region and we understand the complexities better than they do. I am not a Taliban sympathizer and I do not wish a Taliban government in Afghanistan – that would be the worst thing that could happen for Pakistan. But to accept the Taliban as a reality which must have representation within the country is, obviously, a requirement before we can go and talk about peace and reconciliation. But the Trump administration is even now exploring peace talks with the Taliban through Pakistan. It is, but you cannot achieve peace and reconciliation through one country. Pakistan does not have that type of influence. Also, I feel that the effort towards peace and reconciliation has been half-hearted. For reconciliation to work, it has to top the list of the strategic objectives of the United States. If it is not topping the list, then it is just one of many things that is a priority, which is really not a priority. Given the state of relations with Washington, isn’t Pakistan destined to become more dependent on China for security support? Washington has reimbursed Pakistan for some of its security expenditure but beyond that, I know a time when F-16 fighter jets were paid for and never delivered. I know a time when F-16 spare parts were paid for and never delivered. I know that in the thick of our efforts to fight international terrorism we were refused many types of technologically advanced equipment which might have made it much easier for us to fight the war. So, strategically speaking, I think we have been in the same place for the past decade. Really? Post 9/11, there was a brief period in the middle where there was this effort on the part of the Americans, but then it fizzled out. From what I have seen, for the past ten years there has not been a lot of military support in a way that strengthened Pakistan to any serious degree. China is accused of conducting ‘debt trap’ diplomacy through its Belt and Road Initiative, which loads countries with debts they cannot repay. Is Pakistan caught in this debt trap? I understand the very negative view of the Belt and Road Initiative in the West, but I don’t share that view at all. If I had to choose between a World Bank programme and a Belt and Road Initiative I would always go for the latter, for the simple reason that the latter respects the choice of the country. If you take the Gwadar Port project which could be transformational for Pakistan, I would rather have that than the small projects offered by the multilateral lenders. As for the economic state we are in, I don’t see the Chinese projects as responsible. Rather the blame should be placed at the door of previous Pakistani governments. If I have a problem with any of the projects, it is more a Pakistani problem than a Chinese one. The new government has ordered a review of Belt and Road Initiative projects. You don’t see anything amiss? As someone who managed Pakistan’s aid portfolio folio for seven years, I feel I have the authority to say that many of the development partners– barring China – propose things that have no impact on the economy of the recipient but are on the agenda of their own parliament or people. Among all the sources of infrastructure funding, China’s happens to be one of the better ones. Nothing in this world is perfect, of course. I am concerned about not having a level playing field for Pakistani investors. I am all for giving incentives but not for incentives to the Americans or the Chinese or anyone else over and above the incentives given to local people. That is one thing I believe needs to be corrected. In the West, people often speak of a rules-based global order, by which they mean a system reliant on America. This is in danger of collapsing. Can it be rescued? I never saw this rules-based system as having been very rules based in the first place. I thought it was a system designed to make the weak follow the rules while the stronger could shunt them away, with no questions asked. Even prior to Donald Trump’s presidency, there was a great degree of exceptionalism embedded in the American system. So, you tell everybody else about human rights and about respecting laws, but you attack Iraq without Security Council approval; you use drone strikes in ways that are not accepted by international law; you use methods of questioning prisoners, both in Guantanamo Bay and other facilities, which are nowhere close to respecting human rights. However, if by a rules-based system we mean also that the superpowers were providing leadership on issues like climate change, promoting international trade through the World Trade Organization and supporting international codes of conduct, that was a role carried out by the US over many decades. Now, the US is not only retreatng from that role but it is actively breaking down the whole order. And this is a seriously dangerous place to be because we have nothing to replace the order we had, whether you are a fan of it or not. We have a breakdown of international order at a level that I have not experienced in my lifetime. So, the world has changed before our eyes and I think the fact that Trump uses the type of language he does, that he chooses to divide his own nation, all of this has an impact on the rest of the world. With the United Nations paralyzed and America looking to its own interests, who will take their place in ensuring global security? We are certainly moving towards a time where divisions will be deeper, on the lines of ethnicity and religion, on the lines of what divides us, not what unites us. When I look at the past few decades, I see a world which thought it was required to break these boundaries and treat all humans as equals. Now, in the past few years, we have seen a tendency for people to go backwards to what defines them. From being defined as human beings, we now want to be defined by our country, our religion, our ethnicity, perhaps our tribe and maybe it is going to come down to the immediate family, so we really are going back in time. That is a very bleak assessment. Do you have any thoughts on how to counter that? Now, our minds are being shaped by information and news that is coming at us from ten thousand different directions. So, we are really at the stage where nothing is figured out properly, but perhaps something better may also emerge. We are passing through a phase in which people feel it is okay to be abusive and put people down, but we can, hopefully, come out of this and go back to valuing human dignity and human rights, as we did before. Pakistan had a woman prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, as long ago as 1988. You were the first female foreign minister. What would be the most effective way that a Pakistani government could advance women’s rights? To me, the most important thing is equality of opportunity. This is enshrined in law, but the reality on the ground is not the same. This is changing, but has it changed completely? No, it hasn’t. And the courts are not able to ensure that the rights that women are accorded by law are enforced. People want the state to take responsibility so that the women of Pakistan do not have to fight to get what the law guarantees.