The South Asia Channel
Australia’s New Equation for Pakistan
Do two diplomatic visits and one big investment package from China add up to a new Australian perspective on Pakistan?
The timing of Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s first visit to Pakistan may have come as a surprise to many South Asia analysts, as she was the first senior foreign dignitary to visit Pakistan after the much-discussed Chinese president’s visit last month which saw $46 billion in agreements between China and Pakistan. Upon her arrival, Bishop indicated that Australia wanted to follow a similar path, saying: “My visit and meeting with Pakistani leaders is aimed at discussing the growing strength of our bilateral partnership and important regional and international issues.”
This has not been the only high level visit by an Australian dignitary. Just a few months back, Air Marshal Mark Binskin, the chief of defense forces of Australia, also visited Pakistan to enhance and deepen security and defense ties between the two countries.
Given how foreign state visits and bilateral talks work, it is interesting to observe Australia’s two well-timed, high-powered visits to Pakistan — a country that is, otherwise, not on Australia’s priority list. If anything, Australia’s overwhelming focus on Southeast Asia and India has precluded it from being an active presence in Pakistan.
Is that changing? The window of opportunity is now open; the United States is reducing its role in Afghanistan, China is expanding its presence in the region, and stability in Pakistan is re-emerging. The two back-to-back visits by senior Australian officials to Pakistan are evidence of Australia’s new tilt in Asia, a strategy that makes sense for numerous reasons.
For one, looking at geopolitical and economic dynamics, Australia and Pakistan share a similar environment. Australia, like Pakistan, maintains a very balanced relationship between China and the United States. Both Pakistan and Australia are economically integrated with China, but in terms of security and defense, share close ties with the United States.
In what many are suggesting as the rise of a bipolar world, countries like Pakistan and Australia may hold the key to international peace and stability in a divided yet interdependent world — a third wheel between the two superpowers. Pakistan already played a similar role in 1970 when it facilitated Kissinger’s secret visit to China, changing the dynamics of the Cold War.
Second, with China investing over $46 billion in Pakistan’s economy and international investors following suit, Australia with its edge in the mining industry has the opportunity to bandwagon on the Chinese investment and develop strong links with Pakistan — one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world — to make the most out of the economic opportunity in the region.
Third, given Australia’s aging population issues, investing in relations with Pakistan at the moment can allow Australia to recruit top professionals from Pakistan to become a driver of economic growth in Australia. Pakistan has a massive and impressively-educated youth bulge that is fluent in English and possesses technical skills that can energize Australia’s work force and inject needed money into its economy.
Finally, and most importantly, is the India pivot. While Australia has excellent ties with India, especially with the 2014 nuclear deal between the two countries, the fact remains that India’s foreign policy is based on traditional power players, looking more towards Russia or the United States to contain China.
At this point, Pakistan, who is also close to both China and the United States, can be a good regional partner for Australia. The two countries share an extensive history of security partnerships and cooperation in agriculture, education, and health. This history was renewed with Bishop’s meetings with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif, and several ministers including the Minister of Planning, Development & Reforms.
The bilateral talks covered all major areas including trade and investment, security and defense, education, agriculture, and energy. In fact, Bishop also announced a $24 million aid package for rehabilitation in conflict-affected areas — a token to demonstrate Australia’s growing interest and seriousness in Pakistan.
The content of the meeting with Ahsan Iqbal, the minister of Planning, Development & Reforms, is most crucial because of the significance of the issues discussed that included education and research, civil services reform and governance, and energy sectors — areas that are top on the priority list of Pakistan as it struggles to recover its economic stability.
But more than just words, it is important that the two countries take practical steps to develop people-to-people links — something pointed out by Bishop in a meeting with her Pakistani counterpart, Sartaj Aziz.
At a time when Pakistan appears to be on the verge of transformation, it’s pragmatic for Australia to invest and build a partnership in a long-term strategic relation that can go beyond security and defense. As it’s famously said: “Follow the money.” Perhaps Australia should simply follow the Chinese as they venture into Pakistan. With two senior level Australian visits to Pakistan, the understanding, it appears, may already be prevalent in the foreign policy circles of Australia.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images