Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry on US-China-Pakistan Relations

Mr. Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry is a distinguished Pakistani diplomat and Director General of the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. From 2017 to 2018, he served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States. Previously, Mr. Chaudhry has been in Pakistan’s foreign services since 1980 and has served in different capacities, including as the 28th Foreign Secretary of Pakistan, ambassador to the Netherlands, Pakistan’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, and spokesperson for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As a veteran diplomat with more than three decades’ experience in foreign services, Mr. Chaudhry is a skilled bureaucrat and expert on Pakistan’s foreign policy, especially towards China, Russia, and the United States.

This interview was conducted by Furqan Khan, a recent graduate of the National Defense University Islamabad, where he majored in International Relations. He was previously an intern with the Carter Center’s China Focus.

Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for having this interview with me.

First, tell us something about the way Pakistan has managed its position towards the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Many believe that there appears to be a significant shift in Islamabad’s approach, which has usually remained pro-Western and is now finding space for alternative positions, including the often boasted ‘neutrality’ towards the Russia-Ukraine crisis. What’s your take on that?

I think there is an emerging consensus in Pakistan that we should not take sides in any major power competition. Pakistan should maintain close, mutually beneficial ties with China, the United States, Russia, and all other major powers. So, within the rubric of this broader policy line, I think our policymakers are also crafting our policy on the Ukrainian crisis, where we do believe that there should be a peaceful solution and there should be cessation of hostilities, and we do hope that that should happen as soon as possible.

One of the much-speculated reasons behind former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ouster through a parliamentary vote of no confidence is his criticism of Western policies and his differences with the Pakistani military on maintaining balanced relations with the United States, China, and Russia. How do you think this factor has been at play in Islamabad, especially even since the crisis between Russia and Ukraine began?

In my view, even the previous government, as indeed the present government, wanted balanced relations with all major powers including the United States. So, I don’t think there was any intent on the part of any government not to have cordial relations with the US. The US is a pre-eminent power of the world. Pakistan has had sustained periods of engagement with the US, and we believe that both countries have benefited from that engagement and therefore, there is every reason why Pakistan must stay engaged with the United States, of course on the basis of mutual respect and mutuality of benefit.

As far as Russia, China, and others as concerned, of course we want to maintain our ties with those major powers based on our national interests. With China, as you are aware, we have very close ties and I think no government has had any second thoughts on relationships with Beijing. That’s the broader parameter. I don’t really see much contradiction between the overall policy pursued by the present government, the previous, or the government before towards the United States.

Initially, PM Khan’s government enjoyed support from the military, but many believe that divergences appeared between the previous Imran Khan’s government and the military on the Ukraine crisis, apparently after Gen Bajwa’s statement in the Islamabad Security Dialogue that condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine, clearly contradicting PM Khan’s position which refrained from condemning Russia and rather taking a ‘neutral’ approach towards the crisis. What’s your take on that?

In every government, the civilian and the military leaderships talk to each other. There is a forum called National Security Committee (Pakistan) and they resolve their positions and take the position which aligns with our national interests. And that happens under any government. Sometimes, I have seen a tendency in some foreign media analysts to project the divergence between the civilian and military leadership in Pakistan, to project the so-called ‘wedge’ that they see.

I have seen throughout my thirty-seven-year career that in Pakistan, every government likes to work closely with the military as happens in every part of the world. I remember many years ago, I took a course on foreign policymaking in the US at Tufts University, and we learned that even in the US, foreign policy making is not the exclusive prerogative of the State Department, and therefore input come from the Pentagon, the CIA, and others. The same happens in Pakistan, too.

As for Ukraine per se, there is a view in Pakistan — if you read my op-ed in the Dawn, [Pakistan’s English daily newspaper] I have also argued that aggression against a smaller neighbor cannot be condoned; that’s my view and many others share those views. We can be polite, or we can be blunt; I am as independent a man as a man in a think tank can be. And I say that yes, we should call for cessation of hostilities; yes, we should also call for peaceful resolution of disputes. But at the same time, there are many in Pakistan who feel that a larger state should not have space to commit aggression against a smaller state, and that’s the reason I think that you see these two views in Pakistan.

We have witnessed developments about a letter sent by Pakistan’s Embassy in Washington, which the former PM Khan has tagged as a note of an alleged ‘foreign conspiracy’ against his government in the backdrop of his ‘neutral’ foreign policy position and, most significantly, his visit to Moscow when Russia started invading Ukraine. Based on your experience in Pakistan’s Foreign Office for more than three decades, how would you merit the credibility of the letter as a threat, or was that part of normal diplomatic communication as many suggest?

Well, in diplomatic parleys we normally use non-intrusive language. In this case, the language by Donald Lu, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, was intrusive, and therefore it was condemned and protested against by the government of Pakistan.

Now, beyond that, whether it was conspiracy or not, I think investigation can only tell. Our security authorities, including the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the Pakistani military, believe that there was no conspiracy, and I would like to believe what we are told by state institutions. I don’t have the independent means to verify whether it was or not. But certainly, it was some kind of interference in our domestic affairs for which the entire country is united in protesting and that protest has been registered. Beyond that, I think the matter is still out there and has been a subject of politics between the then ruling party (PTI) and the opposition. I cannot comment on the politics, but I believe that our security authorities have said it very clearly that there was no conspiracy.

Debates around Pakistan’s foreign policy as becoming neutral and abandoning ‘bloc politics’ is growing in policy circles in Islamabad, especially after the recent developments following former PM Khan’s rejection of Western pressure and refusal in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While this appears to be an attractive foreign policy approach, many question its feasibility, especially when Pakistan is heavily reliant on the United States as the largest export market and on China as the largest weapons supplier and economic powerhouse. What’s your understanding of this?

Absolutely, I think it is very feasible, it is viable, and, in fact, it is highly desirable. Pakistan must continue to follow this approach of maintaining balance in its relations with all major powers, with only one criterion: our own national interests. If our national interests require us to develop relations with Russia, so be it, and our national interests surely want us to have good relations with the US, and we will maintain that, and our national interests dictate good relations with China, and we will continue to develop those.

Look at India, for example, which is an important strategic partner of the US in the region, and yet, India did not condemn Russian aggression, it is also not caring much about the US sanctions, and is doing business with Russia as usual. But what has the US done about it? I think the point is that every country is entitled to maintain its relationship with other countries based on its own national interest. No two relationships that Pakistan has should be a zero-sum game. It should always be dependent on what we need. Therefore, it is very much doable; in fact, it is highly desirable in Islamabad to maintain a balanced approach in its relations with all the major powers.

Pakistan is facing one of its worst economic crisis and prices of petroleum products are skyrocketing. It is believed that former PM Imran Khan talked about importing discounted Russian oil during his much-debated visit to Moscow. India is importing cheap Russian oil and is clearly ignoring American warnings. Given the worst economic meltdown and skyrocketed inflation in the country, do you see any prospects for the current government to explore this option without having to invite US sanctions?

I think we should explore all the options, and surely we should not take options that will be affected by the US sanction. So, within that parameter, I think there should be space and space must be found. I don’t know how much was agreed and what exactly was agreed between former Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Russian leadership, I don’t have any idea. But the question is beyond personalities. If Pakistan can benefit from Russia as a source of cheaper energy, which we need at this time, so be it, we should explore. That’s what I think the present government must be doing it. But if it doesn’t go through, for one reason or the other, for sanctions or anything else, of course that’s for the government to take a decision. But in principle, Pakistan should have the right to seek and explore every avenue of economic benefit to Pakistan, without inviting sanctions from the US or anywhere else.

Mr. Secretary, Pakistan enjoys cordial relations with China, as its ‘iron brother’. Critics of the relationship argue that despite being at the forefront of the fight against Islamophobia and standing for the rights of Muslims around the world, the Pakistani leadership has remained silent on the alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang. While facts on the ground are disputed by Beijing, neutral international observers have confirmed the allegations. Why do you think Pakistan is not able to maintain a balance between continuing its ‘all-weather strategic cooperation’ with China, and at the same time, expressing concerns over the alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang?

I think much of what appears in the western media about the Uighur issues appears to me as more of a propaganda and as a political tool to coerce the behavior of China. If it was so principled an approach to be followed by the Western countries, then what about the Kashmiris in the Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) who are being killed with impunity, and what about the Muslim minorities in India who are braving the excesses by a Hindutva-driven government there? What about the Palestinians who are braving the Israeli atrocities?

So, there are countless examples where we see those double standards being practiced there. I would personally believe that we don’t make political use of such a situation. We discuss every situation with every country bilaterally because we don’t believe in a showdown. However, that being said, we do ascribe to the UN Human Rights Council where all countries present their score card under the Universal Periodic Review and discussions are held and recommendations are made. So, there is a system already in place which examines human rights abuses on merits. But the political use of human rights to achieve certain political objectives is something that I think Pakistan should not condone.

Former PM Khan offered Pakistan’s role in bringing China and the US together to avoid a new ‘Cold War’. We know Islamabad played this role as China’s ‘Window to the West’ and then brought China and the US together in 1970s. But now, while Pakistan’s own relations with the US are facing a historic downturn, do you think there is any space left for Pakistan to play such a role in future? If yes, how can this third-party facilitation help bring China and the US together, especially in Afghanistan?

China and the United States are two very important partners for Pakistan. One is our northern neighbor, and the other is a big power, with which we have had a history of close cooperation. We naturally are concerned about the competition between the two morphing into a new Cold War, and if that happens and the world gets divided into camps, this is something that we would not like to see. That’s why Pakistan has announced repeatedly that we would not like to join any one camp; in fact, we would like these countries to resolve their differences and also continue cooperation which, by the way, they have enormous cooperation already in place. Only last year, the figures indicate that there was more than 760 billion dollars of bilateral trade between China and the US. Therefore, that win-win approach of economic cooperation is essential.

Connecting that to our history, of course, Pakistan was happy to serve as a bridge between the US and China in the 1970s and I think we can do the same now. Being the principal stakeholders in regional stability, the three countries have the potential to cooperate in counterterrorism and in promoting a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. So, we can find ways where both countries can collaborate. In Pakistan, for example, in many of the energy projects where Chinese investment is there, we have also seen investment or products from the US companies. Pakistan would always want to benefit from its relationship with both countries. We do not like to see that as a zero-sum game, and I think that’s a policy which is beyond any government.

I don’t agree with the statement that Pakistan’s relations with the US are at historic low – no, they are not. If you see FM Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s recent visit to the US, the language was very different. I think the US does have the desire to continue collaboration with Pakistan. I also see people-to-people relations between Pakistan and the US thrive and follow a very steady path, whether it is education, or health, or agriculture, or information technology. I think this cooperation has stayed and will continue to stay because it is important for the people of both the countries.

There are also some senses of pessimism, including the use of phrases like ‘the train has left the station,’ about the capacity of any state playing a role in bringing about cooperation between China and the US. How do you see prospects for Pakistan’s role as a bridge in the future, at least on regional issues?

It’s not like a court system where there are two parties and we are adjudicating. That’s not the idea. The idea behind Pakistan serving as a bridge is of messaging and signaling that we are friends with both, and we want to maintain that friendship, and through us if they do want to collaborate, our good offices are always there. But they don’t have to, they are big powers and they can do it directly. But if they want, we are there. So that’s the kind of signaling. It’s not really Pakistan actively mediating any differences.

As far as comments like the ‘train has left the station’ are concerned, that is already given in the US National Security Strategy of December 2017, that major power strategic competition with China and Russia, and not counterterrorism, is the top priority of the United States. They have the Indo-Pacific strategy, and we are quite well aware of the US moving in that direction. But is that the direction that we want to support? No, we don’t. And that’s why we want to give the signal that we believe that China and the US should actually collaborate for the larger interest of peace and security in the world. And Pakistan, if it can play any part, will be happy to do that.

Thank you so much, Mr. Secretary.