At a crossroads, again

Published October 31, 2022
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

PRESIDENT Joe Biden’s remarks questioning the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons provoked an angry response from Islamabad. At a fund raiser earlier this month, the US president said Pakistan “may be one of the most dangerous nations in the world” which had “nuclear weapons without any cohesion.”

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif rejected these gratuitous remarks, calling them “factually incorrect and misleading”. The American ambassador in Islamabad was summoned to the Foreign Office for an explanation. In another rebuke to Washington, a statement issued after a meeting of the country’s top army generals, declared that as a responsible nuclear weapon state, Pakistan has taken all necessary measures to strengthen its nuclear security regime.

Although the State Department tried to walk back Biden’s statement the verbal exchange between the two countries again focused attention on the future of Pakistan-US relations. The historically close relationship has been in flux following the American military withdrawal from Afghanistan last year after its ‘longest war’.

For two decades, the war provided the principal basis for engagement and cooperation between the two countries even as it became a source of mutual mistrust and disenchantment. But this marked only another episode in a mercurial, rollercoaster relationship, characterised by cyclical swings between intense engagement and deep estrangement.

Geopolitical concerns that shaped America’s regional alignments and priorities also defined relations with Pakistan. They drove bilateral ties into different phases. First, in the Cold War, when the US aim was to contain communism, Pakistan became America’s ‘most allied ally’. Then came the pressing need, after 1979, of rolling back the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. And then the post-9/11 phase that involved defeating Al Qaeda in the ‘war on terror’. That chapter ended with the US exit from Afghanistan. These phases laid bare an ineluctable reality. Positive transformations in ties were almost always driven by events extraneous to the bilateral relationship.

Even before the US pullout from Afghanistan, geopolitical dynamics were shifting fundamentally as China stepped up its diplomatic and economic engagement and launched its Belt and Road Initiative. Regional states including Pakistan began to sense a waning of both American interest and influence.

Read more: US cannot walk away from Pakistan: report

Former president Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy signalled gradual disengagement from the region. This coincided with a significant intensifying of Pakistan’s longstanding strategic ties with China. They were symbolised by its pivotal role in BRI and the accompanying substantial Chinese investment in Pakistan’s infrastructure, energy and development projects.

Increasingly, America was seen as a self-absorbed and inconsistent partner as well as a reluctant regional player. China was perceived as having the interest, money and growing global clout needed for a more constructive and enduring relationship.

Although China is Pakistan’s strategic priority, Islamabad also wants an improved and stable relationship with America. The US remains Pakistan’s largest export destination, a source of FDI and a global power with significant influence, especially over international financial institutions, whose assistance Pakistan’s crisis-ridden economy continues to desperately need. Pakistan wants to avoid getting into the crosshairs of American-Chinese confrontation, but that is easier said than done.

Pakistan-US relations are at an inflection point today. Any significant reset of ties will be influenced by a number of key factors. The most important is America’s policy of containing China and pursuit of a strategy to mobilise countries to join it to counterbalance Beijing’s rising global power. The revitalisation of Quad, the AUKUS security partnership and its Indo-Pacific strategy are all part of efforts to cement an anti-China coalition.

This confrontation has obvious implications for Pakistan-US relations. So long as US-China relations remain rocky it will have a bearing on Pakistan’s effort to reshape ties with Washington. Islamabad may want to balance ties between the US and China but it cannot be part of any anti-China coalition or strategy. That limits the space for expanding ties when Washington’s overriding goal today is to counter China’s increasing global power while Islamabad sees its strategic future to lie with China.

Another complicating factor is Washington’s growing strategic and economic relations with India, its partner of choice in the region in its strategy to project India, a member of Quad, as a counterweight to China. The implications for Pakistan of the US-India entente are evident from Washington turning a blind eye to India’s illegal annexation of occupied Jammu and Kashmir and its continuing silence over the grim situation there.

Moreover, US strengthening of India’s military and strategic capabilities is intensifying the regional imbalance magnifying Pakistan’s security challenge. This in turn is driving Pakistan to enhance its strategic capabilities. This is a compulsion, because while Washington continues to arm India in its counter China policy, 70 per cent of India’s military assets — land, air and sea — remain deployed against Pakistan.

Aspects of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy also have security implications for Pakistan, especially as the US has extended the contest with China in the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, thus injecting Cold War-type dynamics there. Opposed to India’s domination of the Indian Ocean, Islamabad has long sought to prevent it from becoming India’s Ocean. With the Indian Ocean now an arena of geostrategic contest this has obliged Pakistan to increase its military presence and strengthen its capabilities there.

The challenge then is for the two countries to find space between the Pakistan-China strategic relationship and the US-India partnership to rebuild ties on a mutually beneficial basis. There certainly is space and areas of cooperation for them to explore in order to reset ties.

The recent US decision to go ahead with the sale of spares for Pakistan’s F-16 fleet despite Indian opposition illustrates this. For its part, Islamabad seeks a new basis for relations predicated on Pakistan’s intrinsic importance and not as a subset of ties with a third country. Its vision is of broad-based relations that move beyond the traditional focus of security to economic, trade and investment ties and cooperation in science, technology and education.

The US too has affirmed in recent statements that it wants strengthened and constructive ties with Pakistan. But more than declarations of intent it will need imagination by both sides to identify where their interests converge in order to reconfigure ties on a durable basis.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2022

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