What Awaits Pakistan's Likely Next Prime Minister

Imran Khan on top; multi-domain battle; North Korean dismantlement

The Big One.

Pakistan heads into the Imran Khan era.

Pakistan’s general elections took place on July 25 and, despite allegations of widespread vote rigging by the outgoing government, former cricket star Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf posted a dominant result. The outcome means that Khan will likely become Pakistan’s next prime minister. The formation of government will mark just the second-ever successful transfer of power from one civilian government to another, the first having come in 2013, when the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) formed a government.

Khan will inherit a Pakistan besieged by a plethora of domestic issues, chief among them ongoing domestic insecurity and a looming fiscal crisis. Hours after results had made it clear that he had emerged the victor in the general elections, Khan delivered a rousing address, in which he painted a vague outline of what his foreign policy priorities might be. Khan’s speech has drawn a lot of attention, understandably, but I’d caution against prognosticating about what a Khan-led government in Pakistan might sound like or do based on that one address. Khan, after all, has long campaigned in prose—the question now is will he be able to govern in prose?

Looming behind the elections, as always, is the specter of Pakistan’s powerful military-intelligence complex. Conventional wisdom—and certainly allegations by the outgoing PML-N government—suggested that Khan was the chosen one by the Pakistani military this time: their anointed man in Islamabad. This may again be overstated given that Khan certainly has the potential to “go rogue” and undertake bold and unwelcome foreign policy actions. (He may, for instance, attempt a dramatic rapprochement with India, despite his negative pre-election rhetoric on Kashmir and other issues.)

One last issue to keep in mind is that, based on the preliminary seat counts, the PTI may not end up with an ironclad coalition (if such a thing can exist in Pakistani politics). That means that the next few years could be colored by turbulent political horse-trading. The Pakistan People’s Party, for instance, has put in a typically dominant showing in Sindh and could play an important role as a swing player in any coalition.

Read more analysis over at The Diplomat from Umair Jamal, Harsh Pant, Christine Fair, and Kunwar Khuldune Shahid.

Bottom Line: Imran Khan’s victory represents an inflection point for Pakistani politics. He’ll inherit a complex web of challenges and face the constraints his predecessors did when it comes to civil-military relations.

Northeast Asia.

It’s been a good week for U.S.-North Korea diplomacy, with a catch.

Kim Jong Un came through with a concession he served up to Trump in Singapore: North Korea has started dismantling a rocket engine test stand at the Sohae Satellite Launch Center on its west coast. There’s just one problem: it doesn’t need the test stand anymore, and the stand isn’t necessary for North Korea’s serial production of ballistic missiles, which remains ongoing. That said, the positive headlines to come out of the move—as minor as it may be in the grand scheme—will keep the diplomatic process alive.

Further buttressing diplomacy, North Korea, on July 27, turned over the remains of U.S. troops killed, missing, or taken as prisoners of war during the Korean War (1950-1953).

The troops were flown from Wonsan to Osan Air Force Base in South Korea, where they were awaited by thousands of U.S. service-members and their families, who’d turned up to pay their respects. The White House touted the gesture:

Today, the Chairman is fulfilling part of the commitment he made to the President to return our fallen American service members. We are encouraged by North Korea's actions and the momentum for positive change.

Bottom Line: Between these moves, Washington and Pyongyang have recovered from what was the lowest point between them since the Singapore summit. That came following Mike Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang, after which North Korean state media took aim at the U.S. secretary of state for insisting on unilateral disarmament. I expect, though, that we’ll continue to see a cycle of crests and troughs, especially when the next working group-level talks convene.

South Asia.

Ever since the India-Africa Forum Summit was held in 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made the continent a centerpiece of India’s westward geopolitical approach. In July, Modi traveled to three African countries—Rwanda, Uganda, and South Africa. (The latter is hosting the summit meeting of the BRICS group of states.) In Uganda, Modi announced that India would establish 18 new diplomatic missions on the continent, putting steam into its outreach in Africa. The announcement is significant as India and China seek to compete for influence in Africa; China covers most of the continent with its 50 diplomatic missions and substantial capital outlays, loans, and investments. Modi’s trip coincided with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own four-country tour of the continent this time, leading many observers to compare and contrast the handouts each leader was able to bring. No surprise that Xi’s announcements were greater than Modi’s more modest offerings.

Bottom Line: India is renewing its push for presence and influence in Africa.

Don’t Miss It: Bhutan, a country that doesn’t have formal diplomatic ties with China, hosted Kong Xuanyou, the Chinese vice foreign minister recently. The visit was the first high-level interaction between the two countries since last year’s Doklam standoff.

Southeast Asia.

Just days after this newsletter goes out, Cambodians will be heading to the polls to participate in what will, in effect, be a sham election, all-but-assured to propel Prime Minister Hun Sen, the country’s leader of 30-plus years, back to the top. As The Diplomat’s Luke Hunt explains: “Twenty parties will contest this ballot but without the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and its leader Kem Sokha – currently in prison on charges of treason – it will be a decidedly one-sided affair for Hun Sen.” The broader geopolitical significance of the election will be to seal-in—at least for the short-term—Cambodia’s position in China’s orbit, as the United States has already started to sanction the country. Hun Sen will seek to offset any lost economic revenue from U.S. sanctions by turning to China.

Prashanth Parameswaran and I discussed the bleak prospects for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Cambodia on a recent podcast—you can listen to that here.

Bottom Line: Cambodia’s democratic backsliding will continue with Sunday’s elections. Expect China to seize on the aftermath.

Don’t Miss It: Carl Thayer has the scoop on the upcoming 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting and its suspected outcome with regard to the South China Sea Code of Conduct.

Central Asia.

A couple issues ago, I discussed Kazakhstan’s problem with China imprisoning ethnic Kazakhs in re-education camps in Xinjiang. Astana has taken the step of confronting Beijing—albeit not to harshly. The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz explained then, “Kazakhstan has certainly raised the issue of detained Kazakh citizens through diplomatic channels, it has done so carefully, quietly, and to seemingly limited effect.”

An acute manifestation of Kazakhstan dilemma is now apparent in the trial of Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh and a Chinese citizen.

Bottom Line: China’s attempts to quash any semblance of distinct Uyghur identity in Xinjiang is causing a slow-but-sure ripple effect across borders, into Central Asia. As Putz explains, “the Sauytbay case — and her testimony airing details of the camps Beijing continues to deny the existence of — has ratched up the pressure on Astana to stand up to Beijing.” Watch this space for signs of growing confrontation.

Asian Defense.

China’s exclusion from this year’s Rim of the Pacific multilateral naval exercises made headlines back in May, but the exercise itself is turning out to be more exciting than usual. As Steven Stashwick highlights over at The Diplomat, allied units from the United States, Japan, and Australia participated in a Sinking Exercise that demonstrated, for the first time, U.S. Army and Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force land-based cruise missile use against a target warship, USS Racine. (Catch the video footage here.)

Bottom Line: For the United States, the demonstration at RIMPAC is a logical follow-through on years of thinking about multi-domain battle in the Asia-Pacific. In particular, it sets up land-based forces to play a dominant role in coastal defense and littoral defense.

Bonus: For a closer look at RIMPAC from Hawaii, check out Jon Letman’s report from the ground.


Xi Jinping’s got a booster seat. Photo from the India-China bilateral meeting on the sideline of the BRICS summit in South Africa. (Hat-tip to @ananthkrishnan for the catch.)

Image consciousness isn’t just restricted to Xi. On the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Korean Armistice agreement, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on how North Korea portrayed the event.

Sneak Peek: Issue 45 of our magazine is just around the corner. We’ll look at the factors driving North Korea’s extraordinary diplomatic outreach, assess Taiwan’s military readiness for the worst-case scenario: Chinese invasion, evaluate the BJP’s successes and shortcomings ahead of India’s next general election, and explore the internal dynamics of Pacific Island diplomacy. And, of course, we offer a range of reporting, analysis, and opinion from across the region. Subscribe here so you don’t miss it.

Please do feel free to reach out with comments, tips, and feedback at either ankit@thediplomat.com and follow me on Twitter at @nktpnd and The Diplomat at @Diplomat_APAC.