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WASHINGTON: A recent improvement in US-China relations can create a ‘comfort zone’ for Pakistan as Washington views Beijing’s growing influence in Afghanistan as a positive development, diplomatic observers say.

“While Pakistan has close and tested friendship with China, it also desires strong and mutually beneficial ties with the United States,” says Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhary, Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington. “Pakistan was a bridge for the US to China and remains so for common good.”

Senior US and Pakistani officials met in Washington last week to review their relations, discussing both “difficult and less difficult” issues, as an observer said. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar led the Pakistani team at these talks. National Security Adviser Gen H.R. McMaster led the US team.

Speaking at a seminar on US-Pakistan relations at the Harvard Kennedy School on Thursday, two days after the White House meeting, Ambassador Chaudhary said that both sides showed a desire to strengthen their ties.

“The recent high-level engagements between the two sides were cordial and there was a desire on both sides to constructively engage for a broad-based relationship,” he said.

Islamabad hopes that new US policy for Afghanistan will protect its interests in the region

Pakistan’s relations with the United States began to strain in May 2011, when Americans discovered Osama bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, launched a commando operation and eliminated him without informing Islamabad.

Since then, the United States has regularly accused Pakistan of allowing terrorists to use its tribal belt to attack targets inside Afghanistan. Pakistan rejects these charges as incorrect and says that it launched two major military offensives in the area, eliminating militants’ sanctuaries and killing hundreds of terrorists.

The United States acknowledges the success of those operations but says that some elements of the Haqqani Network are still operating from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Mr Chaudhary, while talking to Dawn, stressed the need to overcome the disputes as ties bet­ween the two nations were too important to be igno­red. “Both Pakistan and the US have a shared interest to stabilise Afghanistan, defeat the increasing presence of Daesh, and augment the ongoing cooperation in several areas, from education to health to energy to IT and commerce and investment,” he said.

Pakistan expressed desire to reboot ties with the US at a time when the Trump administration is reviewing its policy for the South Asian region. But US sources say the review process foc­uses on Afghanistan, not Pakistan or the greater South Asia. The team making the new Afghan policy is expected to complete the task by mid-May.

“Since the relationship between the US and Pakistan is security-centred, the US administration looks at Pakis­tan from the Afghan perspective,” said a diplomat while explaining why the review also concerned Pakistan.

Pakistan has already conveyed its views on Afghanistan and hopes that the new policy would also protect its interests in the region: it wants a role in the peace process and an assurance that India will not be allowed to use the Afghan territory for stirring troubles in Pakistan.

A former Taliban spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, confirmed Pakis­tan’s concerns in a confessional statement earlier this week, stating how Indian and Afghan officials had sheltered Pakistani Taliban, who had fled after the launching of Operation Zarb-i-Azb, and were now encouraging them to attack targets inside Pakistan.

The US concern, however, revolves around the militancy in Afghanistan as it wants enough stability in that country to allow a peaceful disengagement. The Americans also want the set-up they established in Kabul to continue after their withdrawal.

Washington also notes with concern that their apparent failure to contain the Afghan insurgency, and continued terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, have encouraged two other international players — China and Russia — to claim a role in Afghanistan.

Diplomatic observers say that US does not want Russia to re-enter Afgha­nistan after its disastrous withdrawal from there in 1989 and that’s why it’s suspicious of Islamabad’s growing ties with Moscow. But it is more comfortable with China, particularly after President Donald Trump’s April 6-7 meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The improved ties have paved the way for China to play a greater role in bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan and this is where Pakistan also sees an opportunity for itself.

“We do not consider it a zero-sum game,” said Ambassador Chaudhary while stressing Pakistan’s desire to maintain close ties with both China and the United States. “We played a bridge role in the 70s and we still believe we are a bridge.”

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2017