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Why Pakistan is the key to Britain's South Asian renaissance

By Jack Goodman.

Pakistan receives more British aid than any other country. The Department for International Development (DfID) estimates that Pakistan will receive £350million annually by 2015. But a relationship underpinned by development aid for security has changed.

William Hague said during a recent meeting with Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, that bilateral relations aim to improve the 'prosperity' of both countries. Hague emphasised a policy that still engages with Pakistan on security but also becomes more developed economically and culturally. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) recently laid out a new education plan for Pakistan. According to an FCO update 'By 2015 we aim to help put 4 million more children into school; train 90,000 teachers per year and construct more than 20,000 classrooms'. And a new business centre, the first of several, will be opened in Karachi to boost UK-Pakistan trade and investment.

The UK is right in its more holistic policy approach because Pakistan holds strategic potential for Britain. A new independent and a carefully constructed engagement with Pakistan might bring the credible position of authority it seeks, but is currently lacking, in India and across South Asia.

The competition for influence

Generally speaking, Britain has kept up appearances in South Asia without needing to 'shift', the commonly wheeled out term in the phraseology of foreign policy experts. China has set their sights on the region through the widely touted 'Maritime Silk Road Venture', and the United States through their 'Pivot to Asia'. Britain's historical attachment gives them little need for a foreign policy facelift. Thankfully no longer a space Britain calls home. They are the region's consultants, superior in the experience-stakes than other Western states that lack the colonial connection.

However perceptions about Britain's role in South Asia have changed. Britain does not offer the same commercial trappings for other states in South Asia. Indian policy makers hold this point of view. 'Talk of an especially close bond with Britain does not really ring true in India', wrote A. R in The Economist in 2013.

David Cameron has called the relationship with India one of the "most important relationships of the 21st century". But Britain's overall ability to exert itself has weakened in South Asia because it struggles to compete with more powerful exporting nations such as Germany, France, Korea and Japan. This isn't to say there are not strong financial and educational linkages in South Asia, rather that Britain does not stand out. It does not have the economic clout to lever independent political influence.

To boost Britain's strategic influence in South Asia is now less tangible. Throwing money or arms at regime change is not sustainable nor a good idea. Startling defence cuts have the chief of the defence staff in the UK alarmed; very real proof of decline. These fears don't resonate in India and others states because defence cuts aren't relevant for forward-thinking business-focused South Asian policy makers. Relying on cultural and historical symbolism largely attracts distain from Governments. Policy makers in the UK will have to develop a new diplomatic strategy to win back influence in South Asia. To reverse a trend so countries strategically involved in South Asia rely on Britain.

Improve the UK-Pakistan Enhanced Strategic Dialogue

Britain's bold position in Pakistan might be the answer. The early stages of what might be new priorities in South Asian policy were illuminated recently. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and Pakistan's National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz met in London to discuss the 'Enhanced Strategic Dialogue'. The tête–à–tête bolstered the status quo. Britain's intent to bring the states closer together was publically put up in lights. "This dialogue represents a continuing, long-term commitment by both countries to work together to create the conditions necessary for greater security and prosperity", said Hague. National Security Advisor Aziz said "We agreed to intensify efforts to achieve meaningful and mutually beneficial progress in a holistic manner under the framework of the Enhanced Strategic Dialogue". The Foreign Secretary has since set out a Roadmap for Trade and Investment between Pakistan and the UK and a Roadmap for Culture and Education. This represents Britain's commitment, it appears, to be a more rounded diplomatic partner to Pakistan. Trade and investment is important to accompany the vast sums of aid. Meeting the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in May 2014, Hague said "Pakistan and the UK continue to work together to strengthen the security and prosperity of both our countries".

Why the time is right for Britain in Pakistan: US, India and China

The two statesmen discussed improving bilateral trade between the two nations, promoting British investment in Pakistan and combatting extremism, militancy and terrorism. There was a lot of familiar jargon, but for Britain there are potential strategic gains to be won from a closer bilateral relationship with Pakistan. The time is now; the trajectory of the political dynamics in South Asia works in Britain's favour. There is an opportunity for Britain to become Pakistan's closest diplomatic ally.

Ties between the United States and Pakistan have become increasingly complex since the invasion of Afghanistan and encroachment into Pakistan's territory via its mountainous border region. Relations were effectively broken after the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. Both sides felt that they were kept in the dark. It will take a lot to get away from the 'sense of distrust', according to former American Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter. Since 2011 improving diplomatic relations and regional strategic positions with 'soft power' gains, beyond a security perspective, has not been the US's modus operandi in Pakistan.

A rapprochement to mend a seemingly broken relationship has taken the form of bilateral talks. It is too early to assess whether differences will be reconciled. According to Daniel Markey from the US Council on Foreign Relations "the governments are exchanging positive words and rhetoric, not particularly significant accomplishments".

Consequently the two remain suspicious of each other. At the very least Pakistan is still viewed by the United States within the Af-Pak paradigm. The main concern for the US after the withdrawal of troops is still security vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Winning hearts and minds in Pakistan plays second fiddle to this. Senior American figures in foreign policy believe this trend should be addressed. Ambassador Munter, speaking at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, stressed it would be wise for America not to view Pakistan through the prism of security. Until this changes dramatically, it means the role of a new benevolent political ally is 'open'.

History tells us that at the beginning of new Indian Governments, relations with Pakistan have often improved. For example, the BJP Government signed the Lahore Declaration in 1999 shortly after elections. Some in Pakistan are hopeful that the same will occur after BJP's Narendra Modi victory in the Indian Elections. 'When they (BJP) were in power, they made Indo-Pak relations a priority', Kishwer Zehra member of National Assembly of Pakistan, told the Economic Times.

In terms of foreign policy it is likely that a continued form of arms-length diplomacy will suffice for both India and Pakistan. The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will also impact India. Fears of extremism and terrorism are high on the Indo-Pak security agenda. Even if relations improve with the Modi-led Government, foreign policy will still be curtailed by a ubiquitous sense of mutual caution. Again, it leaves room for another state to form closer diplomatic ties with Pakistan.

The door is open because no other state has the same regional aspirations and existing connections as Britain. China still has a large financial stake in Pakistan. But Beijing has no desire to mediate in the region to create political influence. Author William Dalrymple even wrote recently that their 50-year alliance "is now looking increasingly past its sell-by date".

Strategic potential as Pakistan's 'middle-man'

It will be an asset for the UK to be Pakistan's sole or closest Western political representative. In this role Britain will have the opportunity to act as problem solver or point of access, if required, between Pakistan, India, the US and the International Community in general. It is likely that there will be issues with the US because of their continued military presence in Afghanistan and if drone strikes continue in Pakistan. For India the threat of terrorism that might infiltrate through Afghanistan and Pakistan warrants the input of a 'middle-man'.

Compared with recent overseas forays, it is in Britain's interest to maintain the status quo on the ground in Pakistan. Typically for British foreign policy, sometimes pursuing an American aim, regime change has been the objective. In Iraq, Afghanistan and more recently Libya and Syria. Clearly, this is off the agenda if Britain intends to cultivate a reciprocal bilateral relationship with Pakistan. Knowing its own limitations and assets will force Britain to rethink its position in South Asia in the future. William Hague seems to have adopted a very positive stance already with Pakistan.

There have been no formal documents stipulating that Pakistan has become the British priority in South Asia. No personalised label for their position in Pakistan. We may not yet have to deal with a new inelegant abbreviation, Pak-UK. To some extent there is now a waiting game to play. A chance to monitor the shift in British strategic interests towards Pakistan through Direct Financial Investment in the private sector, engaging the British Pakistani diaspora, continued aid for development, joint-security ventures, cultural initiatives and more high level diplomatic meetings.

Indian foreign policy makers have in the past, according to The Times of India, grown suspicious of Britain's perceived favouritism toward Pakistan. 'They seem to be placing Pakistan at the centre of a peace deal', was apparently India's view of a British brokered strategic pact between Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2013. 'India also remains deeply sceptical of British interests and intentions in this region', the article continued.

This article was written within a specific context and related more to a concern about Britain's inability to create a meaningful agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan once NATO troops are withdrawn. It invoked memories of the legacy of post-colonial bloodshed in India. If Britain does seek to redefine its position in South Asia, it will have to overcome and accept the suspicions, even the animosity of friendly states such as India and the United States, to reside as an equal constituent part of the South Asian strategic landscape.

Still, the objectives behind the ambiguous 'Enhanced Strategic Dialogue' can only be guessed at. Lots of relationships are elevated by lofty titles. But whether or not British policy makers are consciously setting their sights on a new bilateral policy with Pakistan, it appears to make sense. A push for trade, investment and education indicates a strategic shift. Varying the language of engagement beyond the security context is good for the relationship.

Britain does not intend to shy away from profiting from its unique position in South Asia and it wants to have a role that exerts greater influence than it does at the moment. It has the opportunity to feature prominently in the future trajectory of the region by gaining a significant political foothold in Pakistan with due financial investment and diplomatic collaboration.

June 2014

Jack Goodman is former Research Associate at The Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Currently working as a freelance writer and researcher on UK foreign policy and South Asian affairs.