ONE of Pakistan’s greatest diplomatic achievements during the Cold War was to simultaneously enjoy strong ties with the United States and China. With the end of the Cold War and the retreat of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, this triangular relationship has changed. Pakistan’s ties to Beijing have never been stronger, while ties to Washington are once again troubled. Nothing symbolises this shift more than CPEC.
China has offered Pakistan over $50 billion in investments for critical infrastructure projects as prospects for greater financial and military assistance from Washington dim. Washington has good reasons to be supportive — or at least not negative — about CPEC. If Pakistan can raise its game and make the most of this opportunity, CPEC will not just be one more external lending stream, it can help Pakistan achieve sustainable economic growth, one predicate for national, if not regional stability.
There are, however, challenges to be overcome before extravagant visions of CPEC can be realised. Thriving port cities depend on location and historic patterns of commerce. Habitual Pakistani frictions between provinces and civil-military relations are complicating the takeoff stage. Beijing does not have a track record of philanthropy with respect to foreign investments. CPEC is not a gift; it’s a mutual opportunity, accompanied with interest rates. And Pakistan is in no position to drive hard bargains.
The US may not compete with China for influence in Pakistan.
The upswing in China-Pakistan relations extends well beyond CPEC. Beijing is also helping Pakistan by placing road blocks before India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and preventing the UN from adding Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar to its listing of terrorists. In contrast, the US Defence Authorisation Act passed by the Congress conditions half of the assistance given to Pakistan on demonstrable steps against terror groups.
Not that long ago, in 2009, Washington decided to make a major effort to improve relations with Pakistan and to bolster a newly elected civilian government. Now it is very hard to envision another major initiative by Washington, which is sceptical of Islamabad’s promissory notes, or by Pakistan, which is accustomed to being on the receiving end of Washington’s initiatives, not the other way around. Absent a source of new propulsion, bilateral ties will continue to lose altitude.
Islamabad, Washington, and even Beijing have something to lose from these dynamics. No matter how generous Chinese infrastructure and military support turn out to be for Pakistan, having one major power benefactor is half as good as having two. Washington will have less influence to change Pakistani choices for the better, and will now need more of Beijing’s help with crisis management. And while Beijing’s gains are likely to be real, so, too, will the responsibilities of being Pakistan’s top benefactor.
Washington is not inclined to compete with China for influence in Pakistan. Nor is the prospect of more Russian engagement with Pakistan likely to alter US calculations. Washington’s current mood is to continue offering assistance to support common interests — while conditioning a growing portion of aid to demonstrable steps that confirm long-promised changes in Pakistan’s national security policies. All this can be upended with another major act of terrorism that can be traced back to Pakistan.
A legitimate question is whether Washington is capable of acknowledging changes for the better in Pakistan’s national security policies after such a long period of complaint. There has been clear acknowledgement of Pakistan’s counterterrorism campaign against the Pakistan Taliban, and the sacrifices this has entailed. But there is deep scepticism that the scope of this campaign will be widened.
Some in the incoming Trump administration might be inclined to pursue the ‘nuclear option’ — declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. This would be a grave mistake, not just for Pakistan and the United States, but also for India. Severing ties will not improve Pakistan’s choices, nor help the United States to encourage nuclear-armed neighbors to improve ties or defuse tensions. Washington does more of the latter than the former because, when New Delhi occasionally seeks to turn the page, an attack on India by cadres of groups based in Pakistan typically follows.
One challenge for Washington during the Trump administration will be to keep the door open and to recognise changes in policies that have weakened Pakistan’s well-being. A second challenge will be to not fly off the handle in ways that badly affect ties. The challenge for Pakistan is to keep moving forward rather than to fall back on bad habits. And to recognize that standard talking points will fall flat without changes in national security policy. Even in the absence of changes in Pakistani policies, the US continues to have important reasons to remain fully engaged on common interests. That sounds easy enough, but sensible steps cannot be taken for granted in the Trump administration.
The writer is co-founder of the Stimson Centre.