Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari held a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday to discuss bilateral cooperation. For the last 75 years, diplomatic relations between the two sides have seen many ups and downs, in particular due to the Afghanistan factor – first during the Afghan jihad and later in the ‘war on terror’. In the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pak-US relations saw yet another cold wave, which was different from the usual carrot-and-stick policy the US has adopted towards Pakistan for almost two decades. US President Joe Biden did not call former prime minister Imran Khan for months after taking charge, a topic that became a rather banal piece of conversation in many interviews during the PTI tenure.
Some observers felt it was due to Pakistan’s support of the Afghan Taliban over the years that led to the US hesitating to engage with Pakistan. Others believe that the way that the Imran government came out supporting the Afghan Taliban was hardly conducive to the Biden regime looking kindly at his government. Imran Khan’s statement about the Afghans breaking the ‘shackles of slavery’ right after the fall of Kabul didn’t help matters either. Whatever the reasons, relations between the US and Pakistan had soured during the last months of the PTI government. After the vote of no-confidence, Imran’s all-out allegations about Donald Lu and the US role in a bizarre ‘foreign conspiracy’ narrative led to further tensions. However, the new government has tried to reset the relationship. Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto’s meeting with Secretary Blinken is being seen as a new beginning in many ways.
While the meeting went well, the comments about China’s debt to Pakistan have not been taken kindly by the Chinese government. Secretary Blinken called on Pakistan to seek debt relief from China due to the floods. China has retorted by saying that the US had better help Pakistan with real action rather than just commenting on China-Pakistan cooperation. It is no secret that when it comes to Pak-China relations and CPEC, the US has reservations – because of China’s growing influence in South Asia. This is why US-India relations are seen as a way of helping prop up India against China in the region. Such reservations may remain there as global powers have their own interests in the region and view their relationships in their own context, but it is important for Pakistan to keep healthy relations with its longtime partner China and also maintain good relations with the US. After Monday’s meeting, the overall message was that the US wants to engage with Pakistan, having also announced an additional $10 million for Pakistan’s food security programme and reiterating that Pakistan and the US have a shared stake in the future of Afghanistan. It seems both the US and Pakistan understand that it is better to ease out tensions and move ahead with a clean slate with all stakeholders. The US has even engaged with Imran Khan and his party after the whole cypher conspiracy narrative. At the end of the day, foreign policy is a balancing act – and Pakistan needs to set reset alignments while maintaining ties with all. A tough ask, but one that can be managed with some tactful positioning.