How is Islamabad expected to balance its ties with Washington and Beijing in the muddy waters of superpower tussle?
Pakistan stands atop a forked road, and may soon be faced with a difficult choice as the strain between the US and China grows.
The US secretary of state’s recent statements make it clear that they are building an alliance of countries against China. The Biden administration’s foreign policy approach is quite passive aggressive, as evidenced by the recent summit meeting of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) where US sought to bring Japan, Australia and India on the same page with regard to China. South Korea and France are also being pursued in this grand alliance-building endeavour.
Where does Pakistan fit in this puzzle? Our country seems to have no direct involvement so far. Pakistan-US relations are in a diplomatic conundrum, exacerbated by the situation in Afghanistan. The US does not currently have a permanent ambassador in Pakistan. The relationship between the two countries has been, and continues to be, defined by reluctant give-and-take deals. Reports from Washington indicate that Pakistan’s geopolitical importance is not something the US can completely ignore, even as the Foreign Office insists that Pakistan will not let the US use its territory for military bases. Pakistan remains integral to the USA’s Afghanistan exit plan. Bailout packages by the US-led IMF remain integral to Pakistan’s economy. Additionally, the US is an essential export market for Pakistan.
What further complicates our ‘Sophie’s Choice’ is Pakistan’s present strategic alliance with China, which has not only invested billions of dollars in CPEC projects, but has also become Pakistan’s main supplier of weapons. The CPEC is part of China’s larger, ambitious plan, the Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure project stretching from East Asia to Europe. Prime Minister Imran Khan recently reiterated that the CPEC is a manifestation of the deep friendship between the two states. Severing ties with China is highly unlikely given Pakistan’s economic and military reliance on its neighbour. This is why the prospect of a forced choice is a huge dilemma for Pakistan.
What further complicates our ‘Sophie’s Choice’ is Pakistan’s strategic alliance with China, which has not only invested billions of dollars in CPEC projects, but has also become Pakistan’s main supplier of weapons.
Regional politics are also relevant here. The tension between India and Pakistan reflects in the ties the two countries have respectively strengthened: India with the US and Pakistan with China. A potential cold war between the US and China can have grave repercussions for border tensions between India and Pakistan; two nuclear armed countries with a history of conflict. If South Asia becomes a battleground for two world powers, the consequences will be dire. It should be noted that the alliance with China can also strain Pakistan’s relations with some Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
How is Islamabad expected to balance its ties with Washington and Beijing in the muddy waters of superpower tussle? It seems that neither of the rival giants has issued an ultimatum to Pakistan. Maybe they don’t intend to. However, the ever-deepening tension between the two should be enough to keep our diplomats on tiptoes. It seems that we are keeping our options open by not rushing into irreversible positions. Most analysts seem to think this is a good sign, indicative of productive brainstorming for an adequate approach.
Some observers are quick to point out that economic assistance from both the IMF and China cut a bad deal for Pakistan in the long run, pushing the country into a debt trap and relentless dependence on external actors. Due to the IMF conditions, Pakistan is imposing indirect taxes to meet revenue requirements which disproportionately impact lower income people. This has led to protests in the capital recently. Uneven development caused by the CPEC is also criticised. Perhaps the answer lies in neither choice. Is refusing to travel either road a legitimate option available to Pakistan?
Two roads have diverged in a diplomatic jungle and it will be difficult for Pakistan to travel both. Which path will the country embark on? Hopefully, the one that avoids the mistakes made in the past.
The author is a LUMS graduate and a multidisciplinary writer with an interest in urban policy. She tweets @shehreenhere