On the one-year anniversary of the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan and in the midst of soaring tensions among the world’s major powers, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif spoke with Newsweek Senior Foreign Policy Writer Tom O’Connor about the urgent need for greater international cooperation, the role his nation could play in preventing the world from sliding into an ever deeper set of crises, and other matters of import.
In this interview, conducted via email, Sharif discusses his views on the stark deterioration of relations between the United States and China and his stance on Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. As the new leader of a nation that managed to bring Washington and Beijing together half a century ago in the heat of the Cold War, Sharif wants Pakistan to once again play a role in facilitating a de-escalation in the interest of improving bilateral bonds with both leading powers, thereby avoiding a potentially devastating collision that could have untold consequences for the international community.
Closer to home, Sharif discusses turmoil plaguing neighboring Afghanistan, unresolved strife across the disputed region of Kashmir, and an uptick in militant attacks within Pakistan’s own borders, a trifecta of instability that threatens his nuclear-armed nation’s own national security at a time of domestic political uncertainty.
Sharif took office in April in the wake of a no-confidence vote that ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan, whom Newsweek interviewed last September. The upheaval marked a return to power for the Pakistan Muslim League-N, formerly led by Sharif’s elder brother, Nawaz, who served as premier three times, most recently until 2017.
Today, the younger Sharif seeks to forge his own path as leader of the Islamic Republic of nearly 242 million people while navigating internal and external challenges to improve the position of Pakistan and the surrounding region.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Newsweek: Transitions of power are always difficult, as the United States itself experienced just last year. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s departure was acrimonious and divisive for Pakistan. What is your plan to bring your nation together, to unite behind your leadership and look toward the future?
Sharif: What we need to understand first of all is the fact that the change of the government took place through a constitutional process. All political forces of the country minus Imran Khan’s PTI [Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf] came together to form this vastly representative government to take on the most urgent issues facing the people.
In terms of the vote cast in the previous General Elections of 2018, the political parties that are part of the coalition government represent 70 percent of the electorate. The present government is truly national in nature.
The coalition government is working on an agreed-upon national agenda of economic reform and stabilization. It is the topmost priority at the moment. We are also focusing on making governance efficient and service-oriented, besides improving Pakistan’s relations with friendly countries on the basis of our mutual interests.
The national agenda I mentioned has broad-based support because people understand the criticality of the issues that need to be dealt with.
Pakistan has long called for improving relations between Islamabad and Washington, yet there have been a number of negative developments on this front in recent years. How do you view the importance of this relationship, in what direction is it headed, and what challenges remain?
Pakistan and the U.S. have a longstanding relationship encompassing diverse areas of common interest. It is our endeavor to build a broad-based and sustainable partnership on the basis of mutual respect and mutual benefit.
The Foreign Minister met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in New York and has had two telephone conversations with him.
This year we are celebrating 75 years of establishment of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Pakistan.
We have instituted Dialogues in the areas of health, energy, climate, investment and trade. These Dialogues are playing an important role in strengthening our bilateral ties. Most recently, we held the Health Dialogue with the U.S., which will help facilitate more bilateral cooperation in the health sector. We also hope for the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) Ministerial level meeting this year.
We have had high-level visits from the U.S. to explore bilateral trade and commercial ties. Some of the U.S. companies are doing extremely well in Pakistan, and there are growing trade and commercial ties between the two counties, with a lot more potential to achieve.
We encourage major U.S. companies to invest in Pakistan’s lucrative market and enhance commercial ties, particularly in its growing IT sector. There is a strong Pakistani Diaspora in the U.S. that is acting as a bridge to deepen the ties between our two countries and the people.
The government remains committed to maintaining constructive and sustained engagement with the U.S. with a view to further strengthening and diversifying our relationship for the benefit of our two countries.
Pakistan has traditionally enjoyed a close relationship with China, but today heightened friction between China and the United States is having global repercussions. Are you concerned about the ability of these two countries to manage their relations peacefully, and what a potential worsening in their tensions, or even a clash, could mean for Pakistan and the rest of the world, especially if nations were asked to choose sides?
While the Pakistan-China relationship is very special, Pakistan and the U.S. have also maintained a longstanding historic bilateral relationship which covers all issues of mutual interest.
We believe that constructive engagement with all countries can promote peace and security as well as development and connectivity in the whole region. We look forward to remaining engaged with the international community for peace and stability in the region and beyond.
Conflict or crisis anywhere in the world has negative consequences for global peace, security and economy; particularly for the developing countries.
The world can ill-afford descent into another era of Cold War or bloc politics. I believe polarization would have serious consequences for the global economy afflicted by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine crisis. The developing countries, like Pakistan, are already suffering from external shocks to their socio-economic well-being, and do not desire aggravation of these challenges induced by major power rivalry.
It is our considered view that cooperation, not confrontation, should be the main driver of international relations. Ways should be found to address concerns through mutual understanding, mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win solutions.
Pakistan played a pivotal role in bringing China and the United States together half a century ago for talks that served as the foundation for their modern relationship. Can Pakistan play a similar role as it did in the past in de-escalating tensions between these two powers?
Pakistan’s foreign policy is one of friendliness and goodwill towards all the nations of the world. Pakistan has traditionally maintained good relations with China and the United States. Historically, it was Pakistan that acted as a bridge in opening up the relationship between the United States and the Peoples’s Republic of China.
Pakistan continues to highlight the need for avoidance of a confrontational approach. Bloc politics and any drift towards cold war will not produce any positive results, and in fact would be counterproductive for growth and stability.
Pakistan strongly believes that inter-state relations should be based on mutual respect and peaceful resolution of disputes by upholding the principles of the UN charter and international law.
If China and the U.S. so desire, Pakistan would be happy to play a positive role to bridge their differences, as we had done in the past.
The current war in Ukraine is putting severe strain on the international order. Has this conflict changed Pakistan’s perception of Russia and the West? How do you envision the future of this conflict?
From the outset, Pakistan has been emphasizing a diplomatic solution of the Ukraine conflict in accordance with relevant multilateral agreements, international law, and the provisions of the UN Charter. Pakistan believes in an international order based on the fundamental principles of the UN Charter: self-determination of peoples, non-use or threat of use of force, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of States, and pacific settlement of disputes. It cannot be emphasized enough that settlement of any conflict can only be arrived at through diplomacy and dialogue.
Pakistan is committed to having friendly relations with all major powers of the world, including Russia.
It’s been exactly one year since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, and the nation continues to suffer from a range of issues in realms such as economics, security and human rights. As a neighboring country that has a unique relationship with the Taliban, how does Pakistan evaluate the leadership of the Islamic Emirate, and what can Pakistan and the international community can do to continue supporting the Afghan people, who are suffering greatly, when the winter season will soon be upon us?
If we review what has happened in the one year since 15 August 2021, the initial priorities for the international community were avoidance of protracted conflict, ensuring safe evacuation of personnel of international organizations, regulating the flow of migrants, and ensuring timely and effective humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people, especially in the wake of the last winter season.
Despite initial fears, these matters were handled in a relatively satisfactory manner through continuous and practical engagement of the international community, the neighbours of Afghanistan and efforts of the Interim Afghan Government.
In view of the continued precarious and humanitarian and economic situation, our message to the international community would be to remain engaged, continue to assist the Interim Government in key social and economic areas, and unfreeze Afghanistan’s financial assets to help build a sustainable economy. These are the international community’s expectations as well. We will continue to impress upon the Interim Afghan Government the importance of taking demonstrable actions on its commitments including those relating to inclusivity, respect for human rights of all Afghans, including girls’ education, and effective counter-terrorism action.
Elsewhere on Pakistan’s frontiers, the conflict over Kashmir continues, and relations with India have suffered greatly in recent years. What are your plans to improve this dynamic, and is India’s growing rapprochement with the United States and the Quad coalition of concern to you?
Pakistan desires good relations with all neighbors’ including India. India’s illegal and unilateral actions of August 5, 2019 in IIOJK [Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir] were a huge setback to our efforts to build regional peace. While India is perpetuating its brutal military occupation of the valley through draconian laws, partisan judiciary and strong-arm tactics, including flagrant use of brute force and attempts to illegally change the demographic structure of the occupied territory, it is also bent on disrupting the stability in the region through its hegemonic ambitions.
Pakistan has always been ready to promote peace in the region on the basis of mutual respect and sovereign equality. We have maintained that the core issue between India and Pakistan is the Jammu and Kashmir dispute, the resolution of which will open new vistas of cooperation.
Pakistan supports building of an equitable, open and inclusive Asia-Pacific community in the spirit to promote peace, stability and prosperity. Furthermore, we believe that creation of blocs in Asia-Pacific will only incite divisions and confrontations, exacerbate the arms race and lead to instability in the region and beyond.
Pakistan also continues to suffer from militant activity, including Baloch separatist attacks that have occasionally targeted Chinese citizens. What do you believe is behind this escalation, and how do you plan to counter it?
We strongly condemn terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. In the past two decades, Pakistan has suffered tremendous losses in men and material due to its frontline role in the global fight against terrorism.
It is also no secret that Pakistan has been one of the biggest victims of state-sponsored terrorism that is planned, supported and financed by hostile intelligence agencies. The main objective of these terrorist acts is to destabilize Pakistan and undermine our economic development. Capturing of an active duty spy, Kulbhushan Jadhav, from Baluchistan, and his subsequent confessions, clearly indicate that a foreign hand is involved in spreading terrorism in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s security forces have achieved remarkable success against terrorism. However, we remain a victim of terrorism planned and financed from across our borders, as exemplified by the recent attacks.
The terrorist attacks against Chinese citizens in Pakistan are aided and abetted by forces inimical to the Pakistan-China strategic partnership. Such forces do not wish to see development and prosperity in parts of Pakistan, including in Balochistan.
The Government of Pakistan is committed to root out terrorism. Internally, our law enforcement agencies are working closely with the security and intelligence agencies to carry out effective counter-terrorism operations. Investigations continue into recent terrorist attacks, and we are determined to give exemplary punishment to perpetrators and defeat their nefarious designs. We have also taken measures for enhanced safety and security of Chinese personnel, projects and institutions in Pakistan.
In the political sphere, there have also been heightened tensions inside Pakistan with your predecessor, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is looking to make a political comeback. To-date, no Pakistani premier has ever completed a full term in office. How do you plan to break that string, and bring stability to the top position in your country?
It is important to understand that we are a young democracy. We need time to evolve and mature as a democratic polity. The political evolution always comes with a cost.
Honestly speaking, for democracy to function effectively, the political parties that come to power will have to improve their delivery. A political system can only be strengthened and strike deep roots when it is owned by the people at large, which in turn is possible through efficient public service delivery. Performance in office alone can provide longevity to the public office holders.
There is also a need for the political parties to agree to the minimum rules of the game in which the welfare of the people remains paramount. The systematic problems can be fixed through engagement and consultations among all political stakeholders. This course may take time, but is the only way forward for the system to become strong, resilient and efficient.
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