As the United States moves for a fresh start under President Biden, dealing with the toxic Trump legacy of a divided polity, violent extremism and bleeding economy amid the human tragedy of the pandemic, Pakistan prepares to reset the contours of its bilateral ties with the world’s most significant economy.
Even with best efforts, Pakistan is not in a position to guarantee the safety of lives and livelihoods to the multitude in isolation. Fears of the Covid-19 disaster persist, but the country did manage to dodge a major health catastrophe and a complete economic collapse. The ruling PTI is aware that the country needs support of global partners to ride through current challenging times. Does it also command the wherewithal to actualise the target? Your guess is as good as mine.
The government’s fiscal and monetary stimuli after the Covid-19–induced economic paralysis re-energised the economy marginally but did little to ease the stress of common folks battling falling incomes and rising living costs. The fact is that health and economic challenges are too enormous to be dealt with internally generated resources, especially in a hostile neighbourhood.
President Biden is known to be more sympathetic towards Pakistan than most other US leaders
The universal inoculation is unimaginable without an efficient public vaccination plan. Stressed and fatigued citizens deserve some relief. These are big-ticket items that the country could hardly afford. All-weather friend China has promised free 50,000 vaccines. This is certainly not sufficient to vaccinate a population of 220 million people.
President Biden is reputed to be more compassionate towards Pakistan than most other US leaders. His stance on the country during his time (2009-17) as vice president in the Obama administration is testimony to that. Political historians have cited several occasions during the tougher patches in the history of bilateral relationship when President Biden showed great appreciation of Pakistan’s case.
As chairman of the US Senate Committee Foreign Relations, he teamed up with Senator Richard Lugar in 2008 to work on the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009. His efforts culminated in the renowned Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act that authorised the release of $1.5bn yearly non-military aid to Pakistan for four years (2010-14). Pakistan did recognise his valuable contribution to cementing the bilateral ties by conferring on him the award of Hilal-e-Pakistan back in 2008 under the PPP rule.
Highly placed sources in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledge his role as a caring friend of Pakistan in Washington in the past. They confirmed to Dawn that an exercise is in progress to reset the contours of the bilateral ties with the United States without compromising the future of CPEC and close relationship with generous Asian economic powerhouse, China.
“This is a critical juncture in the history of diplomacy in the country. Confronted with health and economic crises, we need all the help we can muster from our global partners in the West and the East. We are committed to CPEC and also wish to revive the IMF programme suspended early last year. To this end, we hope for a trust-based open relationship with both the United States and China.
“It is difficult but not undoable. China understands our compulsions well. We are fortunate to share institutional history of mutual engagement with several cabinet nominees of President Biden. This is a rare chance and we are keen to establish ties with the United States on a more comprehensive foundation for the mutual benefit of the two countries. It is sad that we have not been able to leverage our location and growing market in achieving diplomatic goals the way we could have.
“Yes, we have already reached out to the new set of leaders in the United States currently occupied with transition and policy direction correction. Initial executive orders of President Biden spell a clear departure from the Trump era. Pakistan hopes to persuade the United States to stop looking at Pakistan through the Afghan prism and start treating it as a trustworthy responsible state with untapped trade and business potential. The Afghan crisis weighs heavy on the country. A peaceful settlement of the Afghan issue is crucial for Pakistan’s future and we wish to be part of the solution process,” a senior diplomat shared thoughts with Dawn privately.
Senior leaders of opposition parties and independent experts are unimpressed with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s track record on the diplomatic front.
They expressed reservations over the scope of closer ties with the United States also because the objectives of diplomacy are not clearly spelled out. They mentioned Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, China, Malaysia, United States and United Kingdom in conversation to prove their point.
“The success of economic diplomacy is a function of economic muscle that is currently fractured. To me, it is clear that now Pakistan has to choose between the United States and China as strategic partner. Our strategy to ride multiple boats rowing in different directions misfired. We lost credibility and ended up in perfect isolation,” commented an economist who supports the PML-N.
“There is no sense fooling ourselves. We shoot ourselves in the foot all the time. I don’t see Pakistan benefitting from Biden’s presidency,” commented a pro-PPP economist.
Many business leaders hope for warmer ties on more equitable terms under the watch of President Biden. They wish for a greater flow of foreign direct investment, technology transfer and better market access to a country that paid through its nose for siding with the United States when asked.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 25th, 2021