Sino-US competition

Published September 17, 2023
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

THE US is cautiously rebuilding its relationship with Pakistan, focusing on critical areas and communities considered vulnerable. The recent visit by US Ambassador Donald Blome to Gwadar is an indication of how the US is strategically approaching its ties with Pakistan. This development is likely to raise concerns in Beijing, which has significant regional economic and strategic investments.

If this visit is part of a broader US regional strategy, it could foster mistrust in Beijing regarding Pakistan’s state institutions. When Saudi Arabia revealed its plans to construct an oil refinery near Gwadar, Chinese analysts viewed it as a US manoeuvre to gain a strategic foothold in the area through one of its reliable Gulf partners, thereby countering China’s initiatives.

In October last year, the US ambassador visited Azad Jammu and Kashmir, which stirred concerns in India. His recent trip to Gwadar is also likely to have caught Beijing’s attention. According to a press release from the US embassy in Islamabad, the Gwadar visit aimed to explore trade and development opportunities. During his meeting with the Gwadar Chamber of Commerce, Ambassador Blome discussed the potential for US trade and investment in various sectors. The statement emphasised America’s long-standing partnership with Balochistan, including providing aid during the floods that occurred last year.

The US embassy further highlighted its comprehensive assistance to Pakistan — from restoring cultural heritage sites and providing humanitarian relief after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake to most recently offering “over $66 million in cash, food, and health assistance” as devastating floods swept through the country.

It is essential for Pakistan to balance its relations with both the US and China.

Many see these developments in the context of PTI head Imran Khan’s exploitation of the cipher saga; however, the US strategy in the region was crafted long before. The US is also investing in cultural and educational initiatives, ranging from Muzaffarabad to Gwadar as the US presser says that in the educational sector, American support is bolstering programmes at the Baloch­istan University of Information Tech­nology, Engineering and Management Sciences and the Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University. Additionally, the US empowers the next generation by developing literacy and educational materials in Balochi and various local languages.

Nations in crises often become sensitive about their identity and culture, adopting a mindset of victimhood. They may feel oppressed due to their religious, cultural, racial or linguistic identity. US diplomacy and aid appear to be focused on these sensitivities, targeting specific areas and communities for engagement. In contrast, China’s approach is centred mainly on development, opting to collaborate primarily with secure sectors and with public sector involvement.

China has constructed schools in Gwadar and initiated several other welfare projects. However, US development efforts tend to receive more attention due to their extensive partnerships with NGOs. This is a weak point in China’s development model, one from which they could learn from both the US and European nations, although such engagement would likely entail higher costs.

The US appears to be effectively intervening and enhancing its reputation in areas where China faces security challenges and a negative public perception. This suggests that the geopolitical competition between the two nations will likely intensify in the coming months and years. Amid this unfolding dynamic, two critical points must be addressed concerning the impact and role of state institutions.

Pakistan faces a complex set of economic and strategic challenges, making it essential for the country to balance its relations with both the US and China. However, state institutions must carefully assess and evaluate the risks associated with failing to maintain this equilibrium.

Pakistan has long been concerned about America’s strategic and geo-economic partnership with India. It aims for a moderate level of engagement with the US, largely because of its dependence on defence and textile exports, but also because of the need for geopolitical balance. While Islamabad’s policymakers generally favour closer ties with the US, this preference raises concerns for China. Nonetheless, the partnership between the US and Pakistan is mutually beneficial and entails minimal costs — financial, trade-related, strategic or political.

Pakistan seeks to avoid an armed conflict with India, a stance that aligns well with US interests. The US has often played a role in defusing tensions between the two nations, leading Pakistan to trust America’s capacity for diplomatic intervention in complex issues with India more than it trusts any other country. While China has been a mediator in other regional tensions, such as between Saudi Arabia and Iran, its ability to act impartially in the intricate relationship between Pakistan and India is questionable.

There may be legitimate concerns about US neutrality, but Washington derives significant leverage from its political optics. For example, its involvement in Azad Jammu and Kashmir pleased Rawalpindi, while its visit to Gwadar was well-received in India. Such diplomatic manoeuvres highlight perceived weaknesses in Pakistan’s state institutions.

The relationship between the US and Pakistan is so critical for Pakistan that it has granted access to American aid agencies to operate in sensitive areas. High-level military communication between the two countries remains intact and fully operational. In addition to ongoing counterterrorism discussions, Pakistan’s federal cabinet, under the PDM government, quietly approved the signing of a security pact with the US. The Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement has the potential to strengthen defence ties and could pave the way for Pakistan to acquire military hardware from Washington. This development comes after the expiration of a previous agreement, which was signed in 2005 and that lapsed in 2020.

Although America’s strategic interests are increasingly aligning with India’s, many observers in New Delhi view Washington’s partnership with Pakistan not only through a historical lens but also as a strategic move to counterbalance India. Concurrently, CPEC has altered the dynamics of the Sino-Pakistan relationship, significantly influencing bilateral US-Pakistan ties. The US is trying to create a balance by investing more in public diplomacy, which is impacting China’s image in Pakistan. Finally, the Chinese ambassador in town may have brought a new strategy for public diplomacy.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2023

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