China or the US?

Published February 10, 2024
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor Georgetown University and Visiting Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor Georgetown University and Visiting Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore

AFTER years of upheaval in US-China relations, caused by Donald Trump’s trade war and assault on globalisation, the Taiwan crisis, President Joe Biden’s obsession with maintaining America’s economic and technological superiority and geopolitical dominance, and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hyper nationalism, mutual ties are settling into an uneasy calm.

Spurred by the upcoming US polls and China’s economic challenges, a consensus may be emerging that the two countries must manage relations responsibly by trying to cooperate where they can, compete where they should, and avoid conflict where they must. Both realise that even a limited Great Power conflict, could destroy the world economy in an era of economic interdependence and globalisation. A trade war and de-globalisation would hurt not just China but America too.

The US is thus trying not to reject globalisation but redefining it so that it does not harm its national security, technological supremacy and economic leadership, and is focusing its containment of China more on the latter’s military and technological ascent rather than its economic rise. This benefits the US. Washington may thus be open to healthy economic competition with Beijing as it cannot isolate China economically, nor is it in its interest to do so. Pakistan may not have to worry after all about being asked by Washington to choose between the US and China.

There are other reasons, too, why America can live with Pakistan’s ties with China. What began as a tentative tactical alliance between China and Pakistan 70 years ago has matured into an extraordinary relationship of mutual strategic and economic dependence. This relationship is indispensable but insufficient to address Pakistan’s economic and security challenges. Islamabad also needs the US, an important bilateral economic partner that has traditionally been a valuable security provider.

Pakistan may not have to worry after all.

So, can Pakistan have smooth relations with both at the same time? Though they have different purposes, China and the US have shared interests in Pakistan, such as its political stability and economic well-being, peace and security in the region, and the challenge of militancy and extremism. That calls for engagement with it. But neither has enough leverage, influence, or political will to advance its interests merely by its own efforts. Each may need or desire the other’s role.

China has vital stakes in a strategic partnership with Pakistan and knows the IMF’s value to Pakistan’s struggling economy, from which there is no early exit, as well as that of the US as its trading partner. It does not want to assume the role of sole rescuer as it would ease Pakistan into a position of dependency and further de-incentivise it from undertaking critical structural reforms. The IMF’s and America’s help and pressure on Pakistan suits China.

From Washington’s perspective, an unstable Pakistan would foster militancy, endanger its nuclear assets, and raise the prospect of an India-Pakistan conflict, jeopardising US security and strategic interests. A Pakistan that is economically and politically stable could be more instrumental in serving US goals. To this end, China’s economic ties with Pakistan may be helpful up to a point. Ideally, Washington would like Pakistan not to be so dependent on China that it becomes its surrogate.

The challenge of dealing with militancy and extremism also calls for the involvement of China and the US. Pakistan needs both compulsion and incentive to act. It comes naturally to Washington to be an instrument of pressure while Beijing prefers to be a source of incentive. Finally, peace and security too would be better served if the region is multi-aligned.

The areas of conflict of interest between China and the US remain. But they, too, call for Washington’s tolerance of Pakistan’s relations with China. Pakistan has literally become the sole strategic partner of China in Asia, serving the latter’s interests not only in South Asia, but potentially enabling China to sidestep the US and its ‘allied’ naval dominance across the Indo-Pacific. This has a direct impact on the American Indo-Pacific strategy, especially amid India-Pakistan tensions that affect New Delhi’s capability to balance ties with Beijing. The US cannot stop Pakistan from being China’s ally but through its engagement can induce it not to undermine its Indo-Pacific strategy.

The bottom line is that Pakistan needs both China and the US, and the purposes of each would be better served if Pakistan was engaged with both. Each has, of course, red lines about Pakistan’s relations with the other. If Islamabad is aware of these it can have tension-free relations with both.

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor Georgetown University and Visiting Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore.

Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2024

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