In a speech at the Asia Society in New York this September, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar laid out a foreign policy agenda that she described as Pakistan’s “regional pivot” within Asia. Khar explained that Pakistan would now pay more attention to building and stabilizing relations within its immediate region. In arguing that Pakistan was on the path to normalizing relations with its neighbors, Khar pointed to Islamabad’s pursuit of policies that privileged enhanced trade relations and energy cooperation over zero-sum security competitions. For many in attendance the speech was both surprising and intriguing.
The ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), to which Khar belongs, has been championing liberalism in Pakistani foreign policy for the past few years. Beginning with the late Benazir Bhutto and continuing through to Bhutto’s husband, current Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, party leaders have rooted their foreign policy vision in liberal international relations concepts such as the democratic peace theory, whereby democracies don’t go to war with one another, while framing increased economic interdependence as a driver of peace among nations. The crucial question, of course, is whether this liberal discourse represents actual shifts in Pakistan’s policies, or if it is mere rhetoric.
Several developments suggest that some level of transformation has in fact occurred in Pakistan’s foreign policy, with the most prominent illustration being Pakistan’s steps toward improving relations with India. Prior to the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the two countries had been attempting to implement confidence-building measures and also to discuss a resolution to the Kashmir conflict, with former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf even offering a four-point peace plan in 2006. Following the attacks, however, tensions resumed, and India suspended all talks. Nevertheless, after a series of bilateral discussions over the past 15 months, this year both countries achieved important milestones in the broader normalization process. For example, 15 years after India first granted it most-favored nation status, Pakistan finally reciprocated. Furthermore, in September, the two countries also signed a new visa agreement easing restrictions on travel. Together, the moves are expected to boost cross-border trade and increase cultural contacts between Indians and Pakistanis.