Power play


PAKISTAN has faced significant internal political developments over the past few months. The passing of a no-confidence vote to remove Prime Minister Imran Khan became tumultuous and saw the Supreme Court intervene with its suo moto ruling to enact the final decision, leading to the vote being passed. Now, Khan is no longer incumbent as Shehbaz Sharif takes office until the next elections are held in August 2023. At this crucial juncture, it is important to revisit Khan’s time as prime minister and the plans he had set for his government. This assessment will aid in setting the scene as to what Shehbaz is inheriting from his predecessor. This essay examines how Khan’s role played a part in defining the overall foreign policy of Pakistan and his government’s previous aspirations for the state.

The end of the war on terror era seemed to gradually dovetail into the return of global geopolitics in which competition between states à la the United States (US) and then-Soviet Union Cold War years had become the hallmark. While threats by non-state actors and terrorism are now in the background, it is the China-US rivalry and a growing US-Russia hostility that are driving global politics and increasing challenges for states around the world which, for the last three decades, had lost the piquancy of great power competition.

Countries like Pakistan that traditionally benefitted from aligning with the US during the Cold War, no longer wish to be aligned with any of the major powers. This is despite its close relations with Beijing and a less warm but working relationship with Washington. The question, however, is that does Islamabad have the capacity to push its plan through? Does it have a workable plan to be part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), yet be able to convince the US of its neutrality? How did negotiation with significant global powers take place at a time when relations between the politically powerful Army General Headquarters (GHQ) and the Khan government appeared to be tense?

During Khan’s trip to China to watch the Beijing Olympics in February 2022, he seemed to have come full circle regarding his views on the CPEC. With his comments regarding the ‘transformational impact of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’,1 he had departed from his earlier views of the project as being rife with corruption and giving unfavourable concessions to China.2 The project came to a standstill after Khan came into power in 2018. This meant that only approximately US$25 billion out of a total of US$53 billion that was promised to the previous Nawaz Sharif government was received and that too mainly during the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government.3 The cricketer-turned-politician had willingly given control of the project to the military by appointing Lieutenant General (Retired) Asim Bajwa as Chairman of the CPEC Authority.4 The general was later replaced by a civilian due to Chinese pressure.5

Khan’s focus on eradicating corruption and targetting the political opposition meant lesser interest in foreign policy issues. His interest in Chinese investment was driven by the same logic as the PML-N government – using Beijing’s investment to keep his political boat afloat. Rising inflation (12.3 per cent), increasing food insecurity6 and pressure from the International Monitory Fund (IMF) to meet the fiscal deficit target have forced the government to reduce subsidies and increase taxes. Due to this, his government soon became unpopular.

Khan was also keen to market himself as a leader eager to further the cultural interests of the Muslim world, taking up cudgels against Islamophobia and presenting himself domestically as a man in charge. Interestingly, while the world was absorbed with the crisis in Ukraine, one of Khan’s goals during his visit to Russia right in the middle of the European/American crisis in early March 2022 was to discuss the menace of Islamophobia with President Vladimir Putin.7 Khan had not remained popular for his handling of foreign policy issues. His years in office, since taking charge in 2018 till 2022, are marked by mishandling of relations with several countries, including Saudi Arabia, India and the US. His visit to Moscow drew criticism at home and made observers apprehensive of possible American and other western powers reactions to an ill-timed visit.8 

However, it would be unfair to accuse Khan of running his own foreign policy, which is instead reflective of the military establishment’s own view of setting the geopolitical agenda to a new taste popularly described as the ‘Bajwa Doctrine’.9 Its architect, the current army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, desires the world to recognise Pakistan’s power ambitions and adjust their policies, at least marginally, to accommodate Islamabad’s taste. He also wants recognition of Pakistan’s status as a stable country whose services to the war on terror should be recognised instead of it getting pushed around as a rogue state.

Though the temporary friction with Saudi Arabia was blamed on Khan, Pakistan’s drift towards Turkey, China or Russia is much more institutional. Despite the projection that the army chief and prime minister follow a diverse policy – it was claimed that while Khan was going to Russia, Bajwa would travel to the US10 – the political government and the Army GHQ are largely on the same page. There is an understanding that the country ought to maintain a strategic balance between global powers to navigate safely and carefully through the challenges of the Indo-Pacific strategy in which Pakistan does not figure as a frontline state.

The call for balance and not opting for either an American or Chinese camp is Pakistan’s dire need. It does not want to get pushed towards either group or considered as part of one specific camp mainly because of its military and economic needs. It is both dependent upon the US for seeking help with multilateral aid agencies like the IMF and the World Bank, but also to ride safely through the probing examination of the Financial Action Task Force that relegated Pakistan to a grey list in 2011-12. This is weighted against its need to get financial help, investment for infrastructure development and military modernisation.

This makes China crucial for Pakistan. It is also a fact that Beijing is the only country that remains inclined in building Pakistan’s military-strategic capacity. In the last five to six years, Beijing has provided Pakistan with fighter aircraft, frigates and sub-marines. This comes at a time when no western country is inclined to help Pakistan modernise its armed forces.

It is also a fact that Pakistan remains reluctant in committing itself entirely to the Chinese camp. Despite Beijing’s interest and investment in developing a deep fishing port in Gwadar, Baluchistan, a region that is now an alternative naval base for Pakistan, Islamabad has been cautious in giving concessions to China in the area. Pakistan’s recently published National Security Policy, which denotes its grand national strategy, the emphasis is on turning the country into a geo-economic hub for all camps rather than a front line state for a single alignment.11 

The problem with carving a strategy and a new direction is that it is fraught with challenges, the foremost being the tension between the government and the opposition. There was not only an absence of dialogue between the government and the opposition, but also a lack of faith. The Khan government targeted its political opponents through misusing the National Accountability Bureau and other state institutions. It had clamped down on the media that added greater fuel to the opposition’s fire.12

Earlier this year, it introduced changes to the cybercrime law to stifle voices on social media.13 Understandably, the space that social media gives to citizens was disliked both by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) authoritarian government and the military. Such laws, hence, are meant to not only push back the opponents but also bridge the gap between the military and the government. The Army GHQ was Khan’s source of strength and means to bringing him to power in 2018. There were signs of growing disenchantment between the prime minister and the army chief, leading to a weakened relationship between the two, arriving at a less than ideal outcome.

The perception amongst many in Pakistan is that Bajwa and Khan were no longer on the same page towards the end of his term, the formula that was intrinsic to the health of the hybrid civil-military regime that both agreed to in 2018. The issue pertained to Khan’s push to manipulate and manage the army’s leadership to ensure a safe end of his term and return to power again in the next elections. Khan aimed to arrange the army chief’s succession to bring former Inter-Services Intelligence’s chief currently serving as Corps Commander Peshawar, Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed to power in the GHQ.

Though Bajwa is due to retire in November 2022 at the end of his second tenure granted to him in 2020, this succession did not actualise. There were rumours that the army chief aimed at another extension, or at least, one that would have allowed the prime minister from making his own choice in case Khan was tempted to negotiate with the opposition parties the way he did in 2020. Back then,
the PML-N had initially given unconditional support to the extension bill that it then asked to be discussed in parliament after it drew criticism from within its own circles.14 According to the grapevine in Islamabad, Khan had also discussed with his confidantes the possibility of retiring Bajwa in March 2022 and replacing him with the officer of his choice.

All of this was very dramatic and made Khan appear weak rather than give him stability. Like previous governments of the Pakistan People’s Party (2008-2013) and PML-N (2013-2018), the PTI government had become lame in its last year and a half before its fall. It was a classic case of heads of governments trying to beat the army at the game of power politics and losing their own balance in the process.

The more important point to note was not the survival of Khan’s government but its utter instability that would have made it a highly ineffective tool in governing the state and maintaining a semblance of control over foreign and security policies. Khan’s government did not have feet to stand on as far as governance was concerned. In its last four years, it willingly gave greater control of the running of the state to the military. The military’s institutional intervention in state affairs expanded horizontally. From economic policy planning to media and culture, the army chief’s footprints were everywhere. The foreign policy and reorientation of geopolitical goals were certainly not Khan’s forte. However, the military used Khan’s weakness as a cover to create greater room to adjust in its overall policy. As mentioned earlier, the GHQ Rawalpindi tried to manage the negative cost of Khan’s Moscow visit as an independent gesture. This way, it tried to minimise the cost of missteps.

However, it is important to note that navigating a new direction through a weak government is a difficult undertaking. The risks may outweigh the gains. Now with Shehbaz in power, it will be vital to see how he navigates the intricacies of this hybrid civil-military regime whilst managing the state of the country’s economy. He will also have to map out Pakistan’s foreign policy imperatives and future trajectory. Khan’s government has left many challenges for Shehbaz to overcome. And, given that Shehbaz and his party’s immediate priority would be to focus on the campaign for the upcoming elections in 2023, the domestic and international challenges are likely to set Pakistan for prolonged instability, at least in the near future.



1. ‘PM Imran, Li Vow to Work for Regional Stability’, Dawn, 6 February 2022. https://www.dawn.com/ news/1673581

2. ‘Is New Pakistani PM Khan Backtracking on China’s Economic Corridor?’, DW News, 18 September 2018.

3. Amna Saqib, ‘The Direction of China-Pakistan Cooperation to Come’, The Friday Times, 18 February 2022. https://www.thefridaytimes.com/the-direction-of-china-pakistan-cooperation-to-come/

4. PTI, ‘Pakistan Retired General Appointed as CPEC Authority Chairperson’, The Hindu, 27 November 2019. https://www.thehindu.

5. Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, ‘China’s Concerns Cause a Change of Guard at CPEC’, The Economic Times, 14 August 2021. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/chinas-concerns-cause-a-change-of-guard-at-cpec/articleshow/85319348.cms?from=mdr

6. ‘Pakistan Annual Inflation Rose to 12.3% in December’, Reuters, 1 January 2022.

7. ‘PM Imran Khan, Russian President Putin Discuss Bilateral Relations and Islamophobia’, IN News, 25 February 2022. https://irshadgul.com/pm-imran-khan-russian-president-putin-discuss-bilateral-relations-and-islamophobia/


9. Suhail Warraich, ‘The Bajwa Doctrine: from Chauvinism to Realism’, The News, 18 March 2018. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/293885-the-bajwa-doctrine-from-chauvinism-to-realism.

10. ‘Imran Khan Will Visit Moscow and Qamar Bajwa is Going to Visit US’, Haqeeqat TV, 12 February 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9y1lj-G7jTI

11. ‘National Security Policy of Pakistan’, 2022. https://static.theprint.in/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/ NSP.pdf

12. ‘Imran Khan Clamps Down on Pakistan Media, 2 Journalists Detained’, WION, 7 August 2021. https://www.wionews.com/south-asia/imran-khan-clamps-down-on-pakistan-media-2-journalists-detained-403813

13. ‘Pakistan: New Cybercrime Law Threatens to Stifle Social Media Dissent’, DW News, 24 February 2022. https://www.dw.com/en/pakistan-new-cybercrime-law-threatens-to-to-stifle-social-media-dissent/a-60899561

14. Zahid Hussain, ‘Backroom Deal Ensures Second Term to General Bajwa’, Arab News, 8 January 2020. https://www.arabnews.pk/node/1610051