Tuesday July 05, 2022

Walking a tightrope

March 19, 2022

China’s expanding global footprint has become a significant geopolitical policy challenge for the US. This has significant financial, strategic, militaristic, and perception implications for the established and widely accepted hegemony.

The US has long enjoyed unparalleled supremacy in the world, both in economic and martial terms, and its number one export around the world has been the American Dream amalgamated with its powerful popular culture. Xi Jinping’s vision for a modern China is a direct threat to this primacy.

This makes Pakistan’s position in the global order particularly precarious. Pakistan has been a key ally for both China and the US, has been elevated to status of a major ally by both, and has even served as the initial interlocutor between Beijing and Washington with Kissinger’s first secret visit back in July 1971. Pakistan is caught in the middle, keen on maintaining cordial relations with both, antagonising either, or inevitably drawn into the broiling conflict.

The neo-cold war is not a theoretical proposition any longer. On October 7, 2021, in a move perhaps most indicative of the American angst with China’s meteoric rise in the last decade, the CIA launched the China Mission Center (CMC). The official lingo states that its purpose is to “to address the global challenge posed by the People’s Republic of China that cuts across all of the Agency’s mission areas.” CIA Director William Burns concluded: “…the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century, an increasingly adversarial Chinese government”.

Given China’s ambitions of leading digital transformation and innovation solutions in the 21st century, a lesser reported parallel development was the formation of the Transnational and Technology Mission Center complete with a chief technology officer position. This, coupled with the CMC, is a massive shift in focus, started under President Trump, and continued inevitably under President Biden. Biden also needs the feather of having taken China head-on in is cap, especially given his unpopular image, and the catastrophic exit from Afghanistan.

The message is clear. China is the greatest threat to US primacy specifically in the Indo-Pacific region, and well beyond. The formation of the Quad and AUKUS are also additional steps to consolidate power, apply pressure, create clear lines of division and competition, and (re)establish American foreign policy might through any means necessary.

It is important to establish here that no state operates outside of its own vested interests, and while this is very obviously true of the Americans, it is absolutely true of the Chinese. The main difference between the two is military might (former) vs economic might (latter), as China cannot, at the moment, match the gargantuan war machine that the US has at its command. This is also tied to China’s very measured viewpoint about never intervening in other countries’ business, particular with boots on the ground. While the American military-industrial complex no longer has the Afghan conflict to keep it churning, that theater seems to have been swiftly replaced by Ukraine, with Eastern European countries looking to the military-industrial complex for security through arms and equipment purchases.

In the last several months, several instances have shown that Pakistan is not only in an awkward position, but is actively being reprimanded by both sides, though in entirely different ways, and possibly for different outcomes.

For the US, there are details between the diplomatic cracks to pay attention to. The lack of an official US ambassador following the exit of Richard Olson (until the very recent appointment), Wendy Sherman’s visit (which was seen by many as a downgrading of the bilateral diplomatic relations to the deputy secretary of state level), Masood Khan’s status as Pakistan’s ambassador designate to the US, and the lack of any formal communication between Blinken/Biden and Imran Khan, all point to subtle cold-shouldering and the application of brakes towards any forward momentum.

For China, this is manifest in their grand design for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its flagship project the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and its irritation with the archaic and anachronistic bureaucratic hindrances it faces within Pakistan. While the issue here is more of legacy, institutionalised obstructionism, and Pakistan’s internal struggles and rivalries, the fact remains that China cannot afford to face any embarrassment regarding the CPEC (and thus BRI). Pakistan’s new National Security Policy is also very China-centric, adopting a “geo-economic vision” of regional connectivity, and interdependence.

Experts also believe that lobbies within Pakistan, keen on restoring relations with the West are purposely sabotaging CPEC-related activities to drive a deeper wedge. However, this may easily fall into the ambit of conspiracy theories and the externalisation of internal disarray. China will inevitably tighten the screws, particularly if Pakistan is seen as capitulating to the US and engaging in bilateral behaviour.

Pakistan has its work cut out for it. Rising debt and deficit, a struggling economy, and the continued grey listing from the FATF ensure that Pakistan will be dependent on aid from multilaterals in the near future. Pakistan is also now indebted to China for the massive infrastructure investment in CPEC. In simpler terms, it needs both sides to survive the short and medium term, and possibly even the long term.

All of this is further compounded by the fact that the political climate in the country is at a boil, with an embattled prime minister looking for quick, easy wins to drive support and sympathy. Walking the tightrope delicately and with a realpolitik mindset is the only path forward at this stage.

The writer is director for growth and strategy at Tabadlab Pakistan. He tweets @zeesalahuddin, and can be reached at: