Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif faces multiple crises upon taking the helm. Image: CNN / Screengrab

PESHAWAR – Shehbaz Sharif is sending positive signals to the US, China and India while addressing lawmakers after winning a majority of votes from parliament to become Pakistan’s 23rd prime minister. But questions are already swirling around how long his newly formed government will likely last.  

In defining his foreign policy goals, Sharif said his new government would work with the US for the shared goals of peace, security and development. He also emphasized the importance of good ties with China and criticized the previous government for weakening bilateral ties. “This friendship is lasting and my government will make progress on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC),” he added.

Analysts say that Sharif will have to go the extra mile to improve ties with Washington, which hit a new low under former premier Imran Khan, who declared publically that the US was behind his fall by colluding with opposition parties, some of which were his former coalition partners.

Khan has insinuated the US wanted him out of power because he refused to allow the US access to Pakistan military bases.

Relations have also been strained over allegations Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency played a role in the Afghanistan Taliban’s lightning seizure of power in Kabul last August, ending in dramatic fashion America’s two-decade-long war in the country.  

“Regarding relations with the US, actually what happened last month was a temporary aberration, an episode in Pakistan-American relations at the [tail] end of the previous regime’s tenure, which shouldn’t have a lasting impact,” Mushahid Hussain Sayed, a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz senator and chairperson of the Senate’s defense committee, told Asia Times.

He said both sides would have to work hard to manage a more stable relationship based on cooperation in areas of mutual interests like regional peace, connectivity, counterterrorism, Afghanistan, climate change and military ties.

“Above all, since the Biden Administration talks so much of democracy, Pakistan remains a vibrant democracy, probably the freest Muslim democracy, with self-starter citizen activism,” he added.

Supporters of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an opposition alliance of 11 parties pitted against Khan’s previous government, gather during a political rally in Peshawar on November 22, 2020. Photo: AFP / Abdul Majeed

Regarding China, Mushahid noted that Prime Minister Sharif declared on his first day in office that “China is Pakistan’s strongest friend and closest partner”, and that the CPEC will be taken to new heights with “Pakistan speed.” He predicted Pakistan-China relations will be “robust and resilient” under Sharif.

Pakistan’s foreign policy has traditionally been influenced, and even guided, by the autonomous military establishment, which is known to be particularly cautious about ties with India, the US, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Most of these countries maintain diplomatic relations with Islamabad for security reasons.

“Take, for instance, the US, which is more engaged with the Pakistan army than the civilian government,” an Islamabad-based strategic affairs analyst, who preferred to be anonymous, told Asia Times.

“This is what transpired in a Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby’s press briefing in Washington on Tuesday (April 12). The Pentagon declared in absolute clarity that the US has a ‘healthy military-to-military relationship’ with Pakistan’s armed forces and that it expects these relations to continue for the shared interests of security and stability in the region,” the analyst said.

Sharif’s detractors, among them Khan’s loyal lawmakers, are standing firm behind the US conspiracy theory, which hinges on a message US Assistant Secretary of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu supposedly delivered to Pakistan’s Ambassador in Washington saying there would be “consequences” if Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) wasn’t voted out of power.  

Those critics claim the US has lit a new fuse of anti-Americanism in Pakistan, seen in recent street demonstrations replete with American flag burnings, that will come to define a whole new form of anti-US nationalism in Pakistan. They can be expected to portray Sharif as a US-installed puppet in the weeks and months ahead.

PTI senator and steel magnate Nauman Wazir told Asia Times that the Sharif government will be short-lived and that new elections would likely be held this year. “Instead of vowing [close ties with] the European Union and the US, the new government should follow a regional approach and align with Russia, China, Iran, Malaysia and India,” he added.

Significantly, Khan’s anti-US rhetoric has not gone down well with the powerful army, which previously backed his administration but backed away in recent months over disagreements on top military-related appointments.

On Thursday (April 14), the Pakistan army shredded Khan’s anti-US conspiracy theory and called on the PTI’s leadership to desist from maligning the army and creating a rift between the armed forces and citizens.

In addition to religious turmoil, violence and terrorism at home, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan faces a broad raft of geopoltical challenges - and opportunities.  Photo: AFP
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was widely seen as subservient to the military until the tail-end of his tenure. Photo: AFP

Director-General Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Babar Iftikhar, during a press conference at the General Headquarters, said that the US has not sought military bases in Pakistan, disputing claims by Khan that he said “absolutely not” to a US request for such access.

At the same time, Sharif will be confronted with massive economic challenges including a deteriorating balance of trade, a huge budget deficit and runaway inflation. Fast-depleting foreign exchange reserves and mounting debt burdens are also areas of urgent concern.

“Economic challenges are enormous and it’s not easy for the government to resolve these challenges. The double-digit inflation and resumption of bailout arrangements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are some of the many issues which will hound the government,” Jan Achakzai, ex-adviser to Pakistan’s Balochistan provincial government, told Asia Times.

Nauman said the new government would likely soon raise the price of petrol, gas and electricity in line with the depreciating rupee.

“Although, the foreign investors would boost the stock market the government would have to procure more multilateral and bilateral loans to keep the wheel turning. This would result in short-term growth and transient gains but push the country’s economic dependence on foreign loans,” he claimed.

Government lawmakers say Sharif is the man for the job of turning around the economy given his reputation as a deft and efficient administrator. Analysts said his success will hinge on whether he can eschew the old politics of revenge, vendetta and victimization, and focus instead on repairing the economy.

A Pakistan shopkeeper waits for customers at his rice shop at a market in Karachi. Inflation is spiraling in Pakistan. Photo: AFP / Asif Hassan

Senator Mushahid said that Sharif’s biggest challenge will be dismantling the “subsidy culture” of powerful vested interests who have traditionally influenced policy in Islamabad. He said doing so would be key to keeping Sharif’s wide coalition intact.

“This is a unique representative ‘rainbow coalition’ of all political shades, ranging from liberals to the religious right to regional nationalists, which represents the 68% of Pakistanis who didn’t vote for PTI or voted against PTI in the 2018 elections,” he said.

“It would like to demonstrate that its performance is better and different than its predecessor,” Mushahid added.

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