Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is being questioned in political circles and the media for his frequent official visits abroad ever since he assumed office. It is argued that his presence is needed in the country, as there are multiple problems which need addressing like the acute power crisis, high inflation, rising unemployment, and rampant corruption. On top of that, the danger of militancy persists, and the talks with the TTP are going nowhere. Although drone attacks have ceased for the moment, the conditions in Afghanistan require a post-US Afghanistan strategy soon. It can be argued that a number of commitments, reassurances and promises were made at the conclusions of these foreign visits, especially with regional partners, China and Turkey. On the other, the visit to the United States could not bring any breakthrough in an already existing relationship of mistrust.

In an overall scenario, we assume that some of these visits provided an opening for Pakistan to seek assistance to redress its domestic woes, while the others could have been undertaken by a still awaited full time Foreign Minister – if ever appointed.

The first foreign visit took Nawaz Sharif to China, in July 2013, resulting in various agreements, ranging from building dams and the generation of electricity through coal. Furthermore, Pakistan’s largest civil nuclear power plant with Chinese assistance, in Karachi, is expected to be completed within 72 months. However, the most prominent understanding was on the construction of a 2000 km stretch of road linking Gwadar with Kashgar in Northwestern China. The completion of this port is expected to enable Pakistan to provide a useful road and rail link, between the Central Asian Republic and China, along with the rest of the world. In this way, Pakistan would be provided with adequate opportunity for economic advancement. It was agreed that at a later stage, a rail and gas pipeline would also link the two cities. Furthermore, China promised to provide 85 per cent of the financing for the three-year $44 million project budget for a fiber- optic cable, stretching from China to Rawalpindi. Such an embedded involvement of China in the Gwadar Port project with Pakistan has raised serious concerns for India and the US, as it can affect the American naval monopoly in the Gulf and Arabian Sea region.

The PM’s second foreign visit was to Turkey, in September of the same year. It can be regarded as a continuation of his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif’s policies, who during his previous tenure as Chief Minister of the Punjab established close ties with the Turkish business community with a special emphasis on transportation and urban management, resulting in Lahore’s “Metro Bus System”, and “Waste Management System.” This time, both the Sharifs enthusiastically approached Turkey, to seek collaboration in a variety of fields.

The third foreign visit was to the US. A joint communiqué was signed which revealed the divergent policy positions of the two leaders. Although PM Sharif carried an agenda including the drone attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA); economic cooperation through trade, and the release of Pakistani citizen Dr. Affia Siddique, no commitment to address these concerns were made by the US President. Nawaz failed to take advantage of the release of the US based Amnesty International Report on the matters of drones, which revealed facts relating to the killing of thousands of Pakistani civilians in FATA and pronounced this act a gross violation of human rights. Secondly, just a day before the Oval meeting, the US released the suspended military and economic assistance of $1.6 billion to Pakistan, which was considered by the Pakistani government spokesperson as a sign of development between the two “strategic partners” (though some analysts believe that the released amount is nothing more than rent for the services by the Pakistani government facilitating the logistics for NATO and US forces in Afghanistan). The reality is that there is a serious trust deficit between the two countries. There are misperceptions and divergent national interests on both sides. The exit of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014 might ease tensions between the two countries by providing them an opportunity for better understanding in other fields of cooperation, especially economically.

The Prime Minister needs to understand that his third term in office is considerably different from his last two, because the international scenario has over-whelmingly transformed. The US is not as “super” a superpower as it used to be, thus giving way to the rise of regional powers, especially in terms of financial potential. In this changed international environment, Mr Sharif needs to reassess his priorities and devise new strategies, so that Pakistan can recover from its state of “isolation” and become a more active member of the international community. To achieve this objective, more proactive and improvised policies need to be adopted. Although, immediately after assuming office, Nawaz Sharif did adopt an energetic overturn towards China and Turkey for more cooperative economic projects, the neglect towards natural friend and ally, Iran, by Nawaz Sharif surprised many analysts of Pakistan’s foreign policy, especially when he has been invited by that country, numerous times. In the past no other Pakistani government has in this manner ignored its closely allied western neighbor. Now, this deficiency has been remedied as the Prime Minister, after a delay of one year visited Iran on May 11 with a promise to resolve a variety of pending issues.

Realistically speaking, the economic needs of Pakistan promptly demand the materialization of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. This 780 km pipeline on the Pakistani side is expected to provide natural gas to homes and will boost the energy starved Pakistani industrial complex. At present, Pakistan has a considerable gas deficit of over 2.5 billion cubic feet. We are producing a stagnant 4.2 billion cubic feet per day. It is expected that at a later stage, the gas pipeline can be extended to India and China, thus making Pakistan a vital hub of energy for a wider region. Even in this beneficial field, the Sharif government has been dragging its feet under one pretext or the other. The argument presented by Pakistan is that if it goes ahead with the project, it might become subject to US sanctions which are imposed against Iran because of its nuclear programme. On its part, Iran presents an argument that Pakistan should fulfil its obligations to implement the pipeline project. Apart from economic stability, the Pak-Iran relations are also important as Iran is in a position to play a vital role in post-US Afghanistan, enjoying considerable influence amongst certain sections in that country. Pakistan has to learn from its past mistakes and Nawaz Sharif’s government must coordinate with Iran and other regional players, to devise its policy for close economic and strategic coordination.

Dr. Syed Farooq Hasnat is a Professor while Zamurrad Awan is a Lecturer at the Department of Political Science, FC College University, Lahore.