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Interview: Pakistan’s top diplomat warns China could fill void left by U.S.

  • May 26, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 4:38 a.m.
  • English Press

WAJAHAT KHAN, Nikkei staff writer


NEW YORK — He has one of the toughest jobs in international diplomacy, but Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, remains an ardent advocate for his nation and has not shied away from courting controversy.  


In the sphere of optics and public relations, the Islamic republic is not an easy sell. From its checkered human rights record and its support for the Taliban to its long-standing rivalry with India, its politically meddlesome military and its never-ending experiments with extremism, Pakistan’s case is difficult to make.


But Qureshi, the number-two man in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s incumbent Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party, gets the job done for Islamabad. He is favored by the powerful Pakistani military, and tipped by many as a successor to Khan.


Qureshi was born into privilege and power. His father was governor of Pakistan’s largest province, and his family is the guardian of a network of religious shrines and landholdings that grant him the perfect political double-whammy: a massive voter-base and a healthy revenue-stream. Qureshi has worked through Pakistan’s multilayered political ecosystem to rise to the very top. He’s served as a local council representative, a mayor, a provincial legislator and twice as foreign minister.


Suave and bilingual, a Cambridge graduate with a feudal flair, Qureshi represents the political establishment of Pakistan, as well as its flaws and promises.


Recently in New York to attend a special session of the U.N. General Assembly on Israel and Palestine, Qureshi made international headlines when he became embroiled with a CNN anchor in a live interview, during which he stated: “Israel is losing out. They’re losing the media war despite their connections.” When prodded by the interviewer, “What are their connections?” Qureshi responded: “Deep pockets… Well, they are very influential people. I mean, they control media.”


The statements drew accusations of anti-Semitism from the anchor and triggered an uproar on social media, but Qureshi remained clear-eyed and denied the charge. In an interview at Pakistan’s consulate in New York, Qureshi explained where nuclear-armed Pakistan, once a U.S. ally but now favored by China, stands on Afghanistan, India and the Indo-Pacific’s latest grouping: the Quad.


Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi at the United Nations’s special session in New York on May 20 (Courtesy of the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.


Q: For decades, Pakistan was one of the few countries in the world that successfully straddled the U.S.-China dyad. Islamabad has kept up with the balancing act between Beijing and Washington, but no more. Now, it seems, that the U.S. is a lost cause, and Pakistan is, perhaps not willfully, in China’s camp by default.


A: We have been telling the Americans: If you go away, somebody has to step in. You’re not investing in Pakistan, you’re not engaging with Pakistan. How are you helping build this bilateral relationship? The only way you can do that is remain engaged. Now if you just come up with a transactional relationship, it won’t work. You can’t just keep on saying, “Afghanistan, Afghanistan, Afghanistan.” There’s a bilateral side to us as well.


Of course, Afghanistan is important. We are doing whatever we can and we will do whatever we can to restore peace and stability. But stop looking at us through the Afghanistan prism. There is a bilateral side to our relationship. For the last two decades, the U.S. has only looked at Pakistan through the Afghanistan prism. Whatever interaction the U.S. has had with us, has been Afghan related.


If Afghanistan isn’t happening, then is nothing going to happen in Pakistan? Is the U.S. not going to invest in Pakistan? Alternatively, if China opts to invest in us, should we just stop China? We need investments, we need technology transfer, but the U.S. is not giving us either. China is giving us that, and more concessions. Of course, China will move in where you don’t. But, we don’t want to fall in any camp. However, China is fulfilling our needs. We’ve made special economic zones. There are no restrictions there. Why doesn’t the U.S. come and invest there? Are we stopping the U.S.? No.


Q: You’ve acknowledged the dip in bilateral ties with the U.S., but also mentioned that you’ve asked Secretary Antony Blinken for cooperation in areas that seem “doable.” What are those areas?


A: The Cold War is over. The U.S. relationship with India stands renewed and rejuvenated. The Quad is in the making. The military assistance we were getting from them we are not getting any more. Coalition support funds are due to us, and denied. Military training programs have been discontinued. Foreign military financing has ended.


But there are still things we can do with the U.S. where we have convergence. Economic partnership. Trade. Investment. Climate. We are one of the 10 most climate-impacted places in the world. There is a convergence in peace and stability in Afghanistan, even with India. [India are] the ones running away from peace, not us. There’s information technology. There’s energy. There’s agriculture. There’s the diaspora. There are a lot of places to converge with the U.S.


Q: Pakistan has been a facilitator in the Afghan peace process, aiding the U.S. withdrawal. Has Pakistan received what it wants from the process?


A: Pakistan will remain relevant to the U.S., even if they leave Afghanistan. Our geostrategic location is important. We have 200 million people. We are important in the OIC [Organization of Islamic Cooperation]. We are an atomic power. They will need us, down the line. So it’s better to remain engaged with Pakistan.


Q: U.S. military has acknowledged the need for keeping a military presence in the region to support the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces. Is Pakistan willing to offer a military base to the U.S.?


A: They are welcome to have economic bases in Pakistan. There is a clear shift in our approach. The shift is from geopolitics to geoeconomics. Our immediate priority and need is economic security and economic stability, and for that, they are welcome to have economic bases in Pakistan.


Q: But Pakistan has a long history granting the U.S. military access. From the 1950s to the 2000s, Pakistan has allowed the U.S. basing privileges. Why not now?


A: The world has changed. Needs have changed. Friends have changed. They [the U.S.] have new friends.


Q: Does Pakistan have new friends as well?


A: We have old friends, but we are working under a new spirit.


Q: Speaking of old friends and new spirit, there is a 2020 Pentagon report that assesses that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy [PLAN] may have its eyes on basing in the port city of Gwadar, Pakistan.


A: Gwadar is an economic base. We want to see it as an economic hub, for economic activity. It is a base that will promote and strengthen the regional trade and economic corridor that has been established.


Q: But there have been reports that PLAN officials have visited Gwadar and other neighboring ports like Jiwani. Would Pakistan consider granting the Chinese military access to docking or basing facilities in the future?


A: I don’t have any understanding of any basing [for the Chinese navy]. But how can you predict the future? At the moment, our focus and stresses are economic based. We will have to think about the future. Just like we will have to look at the future of the Quad. It depends on how the Quad turns out.


Q: Are you saying that the Quad worries Pakistan? How is Pakistan seeing the Quad? With concern? With admiration?


With interest [laughter].


Q: What are the fence-mending mechanisms, if any, with America.


A: We’ve told them that Pakistan’s thought process has changed. The U.S. administration should come out of its hangover of the past. It’s a new, transformed Pakistan, in which our priorities have changed. Our priority is economic growth, human development, economic security, elimination and eradication of terrorism, and reversing extremism.


Q: Some are calling you the next prime minister of Pakistan. Do you agree?


A: I’ve been asked that before, and got into a lot of trouble when I responded [laughter]. But for the record: when I joined Imran Khan, I had a choice. [Former President Asif] Zardari wooed me back [to the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party]. They offered me two ministries. I said no. [Former Prime Minister] Nawaz Sharif offered me the foreign ministry, wooed me into the PMLN [Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz], but I joined Imran Khan because here was an opportunity to break the mold. Our families knew each other. I’ve known him since when he was raising funds [as a philanthropist] in the ’90s. He asked me to join, and frankly, he gave me a lot of respect. As a newcomer, he offered me the vice chairmanship of the party. I am with him. He has a lot of potential to serve Pakistan as prime minister. I would want to see him complete the term and win another term as prime minister.


Note: Soon after the interview concluded, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued the following statement: “Responding to media queries, the spokesperson stated that there was no U.S. military or air base in Pakistan; nor was any such proposal envisaged. Any speculation on this account was baseless and irresponsible and should be avoided. The spokesperson added that Pakistan and the U.S. have a framework of cooperation in terms of Air Lines of Communication and Ground Lines of Communication in place since 2001. No new agreement has been made in this regard.”

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