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Choosing the right ally: Pakistan’s foreign policy at crossroads

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Pakistan has been an ally to the United States and China for decades. And yet, whenever regional political shifts occur, Pakistan’s alliance is invariably tested. The challenge currently faced by Pakistan in terms of relations with the US and China is not new. However, circumstances in and outside the country have changed over the years. Of course, Pakistan-US relations and Pakistan-China relations are quite different in nature and must be viewed accordingly.

In order to accurately assess the current situation, Bol News recently spoke to a number of experts including geo-political analysts, international relations and foreign policy experts to discuss Pakistan’s foreign policy challenges in context of US-China tensions and policy options for Pakistan in balancing Pakistan-China and Pakistan-US relations respectively.

Aisha Saeed, a policy analyst and an expert on geo-politics, believes that China has become a regional influencer and given its stakes in Pakistan with mega projects such as China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), it seeks certain assurances from the Pakistan Government to sustain those projects and their workability.

“Strategically, an alliance with China is more favorable and viable for Pakistan,” said Aisha. “Via CPEC, which is a part of the larger Belt and Road Initiative, the regional cooperation is likely to increase two fold. The emerging block of China, Russia and the Central Asian states including Afghanistan, will remain vital for Pakistan’s geo-economic and security relations,” she added.

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Aisha was of the view that the block is also bigger than what the US has to offer, an offer that comes likely with short-term strategic and tactical gains with little economic benefit and more compromises. “China’s foreign policy is more economically driven, while America is more security-oriented,” observed Aisha. “While both of which are prime concerns for Pakistan, the thinkers in the national security quarters of the country decided to move away from the traditional security paradigm. This meant forging relations based on mutual and economic interests.”

She went onto add that Beijing is irritated by Islamabad’s indecisiveness and inability to commit blindly to the historic relationship. “Pakistan holds the heart of the BRI and chokes up China’s long-term ambitions if projects under CPEC halt or remain incomplete,” said Aisha. “This adds to the economic tension for Pakistan. I feel that Pakistanshould capitalize on CPEC and the BRI along with China and other partners,” Aisha maintained while adding that Pakistan-China relationship also irks India and China is in a better position to keep a check on India than Pakistan. “Hence, along with economic gains, China also provides a better security blanket in countering India and its regional influence.”

“For now, there are no tangible stakes of the US in the region. It prefers India over Pakistan when it comes to its alliance in South Asia,”she added. “The sole concern of the US remains Pakistan’s engagement in Afghanistan, China and Russia – the regional alliance that challenges United States’ influence over all three.”

She further said that all said and done, Pakistan must take a logical approach now. It must assure China that if there is any engagement with the US, it will not compromise on what Pakistan and China have.  “To strike a balance in the relationship with the US and China, Pakistan needs to assess its internal economic and security dynamics first,” said Aisha. “Otherwise, dealing with the two will remain a challenge.

Read more: US designates Pakistan, China Russia, Saudi Arabia over religious freedom violations

“Pakistan should consider options that do justice to its relationship with China,” she insisted. ”Whereas its relationship with the US, at the most critical of times, has cost Pakistan and put it in an awkward situation vi-a-vis its allies.” Agreeing with Aisha, Noorul Ain Ali, an international relations scholar, told Bol News that with the rapid progress and growth of China, South Asian geopolitical dynamics have immensely evolved during the previous four decades; thus, making the situation less advantageous for the US than it was ever before.

“China — an emerging power that has asserted its position as a strong contestant against the US — backs Pakistan above board, causing a significant blow to America’s dominion in the region,” observed Noor while adding that on the other hand, China — with all its expenditure on development projects in Pakistan — doesn’t enjoy the distribution of power. Despite the conjectures about Pakistan’s  intentions to shift loyalties from Washington to Beijing, the possibility seems to be quite impractical.

For her, a change in Pakistan’s priorities is imminent, as the Sino interest in economically supporting its long-term friendly neighbor is far greater than America’s support for Pakistan, which is mainly rooted in military ties. Noor went on to add she strongly believes that regardless of the hindrances, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is one of the largest investments in Pakistan’s long neglected infrastructure, and holds significant value in developing it enough to attract the outside world.

The international relations scholar maintained that while a forgoing relationship with the US is not in the cards for Pakistan, the Chinese ally is interested in turning the nature of the bilateral relations from strategic to economic, insinuating that military support is not the first on the list of priorities for Pakistan.

However, Noor concluded that all in all, short-lived, momentary changes in foreign policy are not a wise idea. Therefore, for reaching a consensus and making a unilateral decision, it is imperative for Pakistan to put forth the issue of evolving foreign policy for dialogue in parliament and among civil and military leadership.

Read more: USIP, IPRI representatives discuss Pakistan, US relations

Ex-Ambassador M Alam Brohi, who had served three decades in the foreign office and is an expert on Pakistan-US and Pakistan-China ties, had somewhat contrasting views with both Aisha and Noor.

For Ambassador Brohi it is a fact that the Biden administration has decided to follow President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and the jingoist policy of his predecessor to contain the rising economic and strategic clout of China.  He believes that the US fears that China would displace it as the superpower in the coming decades at least from Asia if not posing a perennial threat to its global leadership. The strategic scholar cites this as the prime factor for the US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan so that all strategic attention and resources could be diverted to containment of the new global rival – China.

For this strategic policy of competition, confrontation and conflict to succeed, the US had diverted attention and resources to different regions including South Asia, South East Asia, and Asia- Pacific region. It encouraged new strategic alliances, enhanced the level of strategic links with the ASEAN states including Quad, the former ambassador said while recalling that it signed a strategic agreement with India in 2015 accepting it for all technological partnership as a strong countervail to China.

Ambassador Brohi was of the view that it is almost clear that the US and India’s strategic nexus has been growing fast to the security peril of Pakistan since the past decade and a half. The US has lowered the status of its relationship with Pakistan to transactional bilateral relations for narrow and specific objectives like counter-terrorism etc.

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He recalled that the Sino-US rivalry got an impetus by the launch of Belt and Road Initiative by President Xi Jinping and the initiation of CPEC with an investment of 40 billion dollars with increased cooperation between the two countries in the operationalisation of Gwadar Deep Seaport.

He maintained the US considers BRI connecting over 60 percent of the countries globally as the most serious challenge to upstage its influence globally. It is, therefore, dead against it. Alongwith India,, the US leaders have been raising objections to CPEC being the flagship project of BRI. While it is, indeed, a game changer for Pakistan, it has obviously been a thorn in India’s side.

“The new controversy being created by the US and its allies about Pakistan’s role in the Taliban’s smooth takeover in Kabul has further compounded Pakistan’s difficulties with the US. Though we cannot afford to have adversarial relations with the US, we can however review our foreign policy options in the context of the evolving global power politics,” said Brohi.

The ex-ambassador noted that certain facts are clear by this time which are: 1) India-US strategic will further grow as Sino-US strategic confrontation intensifies; 2) Pakistan will continue to be given less importance what to hope of a strategic alliance as previously in the face its rivalry with India; 3) Pakistan can at best hope for a transactional relationship with US for narrow and specific objective as put by US Deputy Secretary Sharman in her recent statement in India; 4) Pakistan’s constantly dependable friendship with China; 5) Pakistan cannot sacrifice this friendship at any altar; 6) As the Sino-US confrontation intensifies, the US would put pressure on counties to take sides; 7) Pakistan would bear the brunt of this pressure through IMF, World Bank, FATF and strategic pastures from the east; 8) Its leadership be mentally prepared for these pressures.

For Brohi, Pakistan has limited foreign policy options under this evolving situation, except for strengthening its relationship with China, following its policy geo-economics benefitting from the economic connectivity through CPEC in South West Asia and beyond, and moving closer to the evolving alliance of China, Russia, Iran, Turkey etc while endeavouring to have normal relations with US on the basis of shared national interest.

Read more: ‘Military-to-military ties’ between Pakistan, US ‘strong and enduring’, says diplomat

Behzad Taimur, a researcher and development professional with a keen eye on history, geo-politics and international relations had somewhat different views to express. While speaking to Bol News, he said that the question on whether there is a need to ‘balance’ US-Pakistan and US-China relations continues does not have a simple answer to it. “It is important to contextualize relationships as Pakistan has forged with either country, especially in the recent two decades,” he said.

Behzad, who is currently also affiliated with a leading private university in Lahore, maintained that Pakistani military procurement offers the best example.

“Pakistan has traditionally remained a buyer of Western weaponry. Even today, our reliance on the same is overwhelming,” observed Behzad. “Pakistan began to pivot its procurement towards China when two things began to happen; 1) When Western countries began to refuse access to advanced technologies for various and multifaceted reasons; and, 2) When the West did not do the same to rival India,” Behzad said while adding that here one has to draw India in because India is central to this picture.

“As India continued to arm itself with ever more sophisticated weapon technologies and Pakistan could not maintain parity, it had to pivot towards China which was offering rough equivalents and sometimes more.

“Thus, the seeming “swing” of Pakistan northeast-wards can be seen as more an act of necessity than a well-crafted, conscious and determined policy shift,”said Behzad.

“Ïf the US offers, for example, F-15s to Pakistan you can be sure that Pakistan will jump at the opportunity. This is to say that internally Pakistan continues to lean towards West. Somewhere deep inside, almost interwoven with its policy DNA, is a stubborn predilection for things Western,” Behzad pointed out.

Behzad went onto add that that this applies to everything else. “Take Pakistani students. Most would prefer to study at European or American universities. That they are just far more expensive and difficult to get into (in visa terms especially), are the main reasons why people go to China to study,” he argued.

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“Rightly or wrongly, and without taking a position myself, China continues to remain our “second option” or “option of last resort,” said the researcher-cum-analyst. “This pervades through society and is almost cultural.

“Therefore, policy questions on “balancing” between the US and China remain a little misguided. If any “balancing” is required, it must first be to get over our obsession with the West and to come to see China completely at par with the same,” Behzad opined, adding that, “önce we have equalized both as completely comparable policy options, then this question will become more relevant.”

He insisted that it is more important to ask why the West refuses us access to technology, military or otherwise; to trade; to aid; and to everything in between. The answer to such questions is the policy prescription to the “balancing” between US and China, as is meant in a generic sense.”

“So, for example, China is seen as a more valuable economic partner than the US. This is because it is able to dole out large investments in Pakistan without too many strings attached,” he pointed out. “Here, one must ask, why does the US not do the same? It is plausible to think that the US might be concerned about the rising influence of China anywhere in the world, at least a country as strategically important as Pakistan.Then why does US not come and try to match Chinese investments with its own? asked Behzad. “Ïf China has the Belt and Road, then the US also now has the “Build Back Better World” initiative. If China can build an airport, then so can America. Yet, the US does not.”

He maintained that one may say that at least a part of the reason is the state of Pakistan’s economy today.

For Behzad, when Americans look at Pakistan through a purely financial lens, it makes little sense to them. They do not, in fact, see adequate returns on any investment that they can make in Pakistan. “If they try to “gift” Pakistan an airport through concessionary loans, then they become concerned that Pakistan might not be able to pay the loans back.”

Read more: New US special envoy for Afghanistan to meet Taliban in Pakistan

“If we take the above example at face value, then we may see that when the state of our economy improves, the US may at least open taps on investment into Pakistan. While this is an example, the principle contained within may be applied elsewhere,” he said.

Thus, in brief, and to round it up, the seemingly growing “distance” between Pakistan and the US, and the west in general is a result of multifaceted issues, most of which are internal to Pakistan. “Put another way, before we get what we really want from the US or the west, there are several things that we have to do,” Behzad said.

For him, there are at least a few checklists with real, actionable items on them that we must check off. “We must do that if we are really and actually concerned about “balancing” China and the US. If we do not, then the foreign policy direction we are in currently will sustain itself,” observed Behzad.

He concluded by saying that he does not think Pakistan is prepared to check many things that are on these “checklists”. “At least a few of them are seen as central to our strategic interests, some avowed and others hardly spelt out. The focus (both by Pakistan and the US) on such items is so overwhelming that the more “doable” items are forgotten,” said Behzad. “Even when they are not, they remain enmeshed in complex challenges that emanate, ultimately, from our internal matters – such as a flagging economy, decades of misgovernance, and so forth.”

Ïn a long, circular way, our internal challenges stymie action on the more “doable”. Thus, we should expect to remain set in the foreign policy direction we are currently in – and for quite some time to come,” Behzad concluded.

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