One could identify four sets of external challenges for Pakistan during 2018.
Pakistan's Immediate Neighbourhood: India, Afghanistan and Iran
First one is in the immediate neighbourhood – both in the east and west relating to India, Afghanistan and Iran. Though Pakistan’s relations with Iran is relatively stable, Islamabad is yet to settle into a bilateral rhythm with both Afghanistan and India. Relations with both the neighbours during the last few years have been unsettling for Pakistan. Despite visits by Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi and their occasional meetings elsewhere, Indo-Pak relations has not seen a forward movement during the last two years. So is the case with Afghanistan.
Perhaps, there is a mismatch between the actors who are engaged in dialogue. While the President and the Prime Minister respectively in Afghanistan and India lead the external relations vis-a-vis Pakistan, the latter’s policies are shaped by the GHQ and not the Parliament.
Will this trend continue in 2018 as well? Facing elections, the political parties are less likely to concentrate more on external relations during this year. The Parliament is likely to remain divided than compose a confident strategy towards the neighbourhood.
Managing the US Stick than the Carrot
The second major challenge for Pakistan would be to stabilize its relationship with the US. The Pak-US bilateral relations have also remained unstable during the last few years, with Washington pursuing a carrot and stick approach. With the Trump administration, there seems to be more of a stick, and a threat to use it. Pakistan’s primary leverage vis-a-vis the US is Afghanistan, and has been trying to exploit it through calibrating the Afghan Taliban, especially the Haqqani network.
Will Pakistan be able to chart a stable roadmap with the US in 2018? The bilateral relations between the two is as important as the Af-Pak one; the latter certainly shapes the former. Islamabad’s road to Washington runs through Kabul.
Growing Indo-US relations is likely to increase the domestic heat within Pakistan. It would be a challenging task for the foreign policymakers to deftly handle domestic rhetoric on the US and the American pressure to "do more".
China, CPEC and Internal Pressures
The third major challenge for Pakistan would be with China, regarding operationalising the CPEC. Projected as an El Dorado, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has not been an easy travel for Pakistan. The provinces are divided over the operationalization of CPEC routes; Balochistan and Gilgit Baltistan, along with Sindh and KP are worried about Punjab getting a larger share of the CPEC.
Internally, no other external project has raised as much interest and suspicion inside Pakistan as the CPEC has been. Besides the provincial differences on the CPEC, the public debate is also polarised.
Besides the domestic differences, Pakistan also has to face some tough demands from China, for example, Yuan as a legal tender. As the CPEC focus and budget expands, there is likely to be more demands from Beijing. Islamabad will soon realise, Chinese are not like Americans to handle and even to fool.
Calibrating Saudi Arabia's Expectations
The fourth challenge would be from what Saudi Arabia expects of Pakistan. The former is engaged in a Cold War with Iran, besides trying to impose its hegemony in the immediate region – Yemen and Qatar for example. Saudi Arabia expects Pakistan to play an active role in certain specific initiatives, for example, the Islamic Military Alliance. Saudi Arabia’s expectations are bound to affect Islamabad’s relations with Qatar and Iran, besides impinging on the domestic sectarian fabric of Pakistan.
To conclude, 2018 will be a challenging year for Pakistan in stabilising relations in its immediate (South Asia) and extended (West Asia) neighbourhoods. Managing the relations with the US and China will also require careful handling. Two domestic factors - forthcoming elections and civil-military relations will further impinge on Pakistan’s foreign policy decision-making process during 2018.