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Pakistan to Seek Deepening of 'Important' Ties With US

In this photo released by Press Information Department, acting President of Pakistan Sadiq Sanjrani, left, administers the oath of office to newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif at Presidential Palace in Islamabad, April 11, 2022
In this photo released by Press Information Department, acting President of Pakistan Sadiq Sanjrani, left, administers the oath of office to newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif at Presidential Palace in Islamabad, April 11, 2022

Pakistan's new government said Tuesday it would "constructively and positively" engage with the United States to promote "shared goals" of regional peace, security and development.

The Pakistan parliament elected Shehbaz Sharif as the country's new prime minister on Monday after a no-confidence vote ousted incumbent Prime Minister Imran Khan, ending his nearly 4-year-old coalition government.

"We welcome U.S. reaffirmation of long-standing ties with Pakistan," Sharif's office said in response to remarks by White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday in which she underscored the criticality of Washington's ties with Islamabad regardless of its leader.

"We look forward to deepening this important relationship on the principles of equality, mutual interest and mutual benefit," the Pakistani statement said.

On Monday, Psaki said the Biden administration supported the "peaceful upholding of constitutional democratic principles" and does not support one political party over another in Pakistan.

"We value our long-standing cooperation with Pakistan, have always viewed a prosperous and democratic Pakistan as critical to U.S. interests," she said.

Psaki said the "long, strong and abiding" relations will continue under new leaders in Islamabad. She declined to say whether Biden had any immediate plans to speak to Sharif.

Islamabad's traditionally tumultuous relationship with Washington suffered setbacks under Khan, who took power in 2018 as the head of a coalition government with a thin majority in parliament.

Throughout his nearly four years in office, Khan relentlessly criticized Washington for what he said was a flawed war in neighboring Afghanistan, which ended last August.

In the weeks leading up to his ouster, Khan repeatedly alleged the U.S. had colluded with his political opponents to topple his government to punish him for moving Pakistan closer to China, and Russia in particular.

Washington has rejected the allegations, and so has the Pakistani opposition.

Domestic concerns

Analysts say repairing ties with the U.S. would be a key priority for Sharif, but domestic political and economic issues are likely to keep him busy.

Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations and the U.S., does not anticipate immediate foreign policy initiatives, saying the new government will not have much time because the next elections are due in October 2023.

"The priorities of the Sharif government will be domestic, mainly dealing with the challenge of a troubled economy afflicted by inflation and the need to finance the growing current account deficit," she said.

Lodhi said she expects Pakistan's relations with China and Saudi Arabia to strengthen under Sharif. She said efforts may be directed to mend ties with the U.S. and the European Union, the two biggest destinations for Pakistani exports.

"But before engagement with the U.S. can be undertaken, the government would want to put the foreign conspiracy charge made by Imran Khan to rest by an in-camera session of parliament's national security committee to examine this allegation, which the new prime minister has pledged to call," she noted.

Khan said he has left behind a ciphered diplomatic message from the Pakistani ambassador in Washington that proves his allegations the U.S. was behind the "foreign conspiracy" that toppled his government.

The ousted prime minister and his party lawmakers resigned from parliament in protest of Sharif's election, and Khan is set to address a series of public rallies on Wednesday to demand an early election.

Russia and China

The governments of China and Russia both congratulated Sharif Tuesday on his election.

"China and Pakistan are all-weather comprehensive strategic cooperative partners with rock-solid and unbreakable relations. China looks forward to working together with the Pakistani side," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing.

The Russian embassy in Islamabad said in a tweet that Putin "expressed hope that Shehbaz Sharif's activities will contribute to further development of Pakistan-Russia cooperation."

The Russian Foreign Ministry had also accused Washington of being behind the vote of no-confidence against Khan, saying he was being punished over his Moscow visit.

India, Pakistan relations

Sharif also reached out to rival India on Tuesday, expressing his desire to improve relations between the two nuclear-armed nations, which have gone to war several times over the disputed Kashmir region.

"Pakistan desires peaceful & cooperative ties with India. Peaceful settlement of outstanding disputes including Jammu & Kashmir is indispensable," Sharif tweeted in response to wishes from his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi.

On Monday, Modi congratulated Sharif on Twitter. "India desires peace and stability in a region free of terror, so that we can focus on our development challenges and ensure the well-being and prosperity of our people," the Indian prime minister said.

Kashmir has sparked two of the three wars between India and Pakistan since they gained independence from Britain in 1947. The divided region remains a primary source of bilateral military tensions, as both claim it in its entirety.

Relations between India and Pakistan plunged to historic lows under Khan, who routinely likened the Modi-led Hindu nationalist government to the Nazis.

The two countries came close to another war over Kashmir in February 2019, and bilateral tensions escalated months later when New Delhi scrapped a decades-old semi-autonomous status of the Indian-controlled part of majority-Muslim Kashmir, prompting Khan to intensify his criticism.

Shehbaz's older brother, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, had good relations with Modi and hosted him at his residence in Lahore in December 2015 when the Indian leader made a surprise trip to Pakistan.

Analysts are skeptical about a major change in bilateral relations, citing the limited stint of the new Pakistani government and with no letup in tensions over Kashmir.

"New initiatives with India are unlikely as the government's life span is uncertain until fresh elections, but efforts to reduce tensions are possible," former ambassador Lodhi said.