Pakistan-US relations are entering an unprecedented era
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s (PMIK) interview with the New York Times revealed that Pakistani-American relations are entering an unprecedented era, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative one provided that the US has the political will to finally treat its historical South Asian partner as an equal like it deserves. The Pakistani leader reminded the world of his country’s many sacrifices during the War on Terror that it fought at the US’ behest. He also explained the extent of Pakistan’s diplomatic efforts to promote a political settlement in Afghanistan. PMIK proposed developing what he described as an even-handed relationship with the US after its impending withdrawal from that war-torn state premised on the geo-economic paradigm which forms the framework for Pakistan’s new multipolar grand strategy.
All of this is unprecedented since their relationship has always been guided by geopolitical interests, especially those of a proxy nature with respect to Pakistan always promoting America’s regional agenda. That will no longer be the case after he recently reaffirmed that he will “absolutely not” allow the US to set up bases in his country from which to attack Afghanistan. For the first time in its history, Pakistan is behaving independently of American interests and putting its own before all others’. That doesn’t mean that it’s acting against its partner’s interests, but just that it’s finally seeking to equalise its relations with the fading unipolar hegemon. The geo-economic paradigm is the perfect means through which to achieve this since it doesn’t go against any third-party’s interests and could actually contribute to stabilising Eurasia.
I recently wrote that “The BRI-Backed Afghan-Pakistan Rapprochement Is Reshaping The Region” after those two countries and China agreed to strengthen their trilateral economic cooperation through Beijing’s global series of megaprojects, in particular its CPEC flagship. The expected outcome of these efforts is that the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway will eventually become the main corridor connecting Central and South Asia. As with all Silk Roads, anyone can end up using it, including the US. This could in turn result in America curiously relying on other countries’ connectivity infrastructure in order to facilitate its own “economic diplomacy” in those two regions. Although it’s unlikely to reduce American-Chinese tensions in the on-going New Cold War, it would nevertheless represent an intriguing dynamic.
In fact, Pakistan would arguably become even more important to the US than ever before. America has thus far failed to reach a trade deal with its new de facto Indian ally despite years of negotiations, which disappointed both sides. Indian-American ties are also becoming increasingly complicated as the US begins to more confidently pressure its partner on democracy, human rights, and military issues, the latter of which relates to both its recent violation of that country’s exclusive economic zone and its threats to sanction New Delhi for its planned purchase of Russia’s S-400 air-defence systems. Despite still sharing the same grand strategic goal of jointly “containing” China, India and the US are increasingly realising how difficult it is to work with one another. This could lead to their larger plans falling flat, or at the very least never fulfilling their potential.
By contrast, Pakistan and the US have decades’ worth of experience working with one another through good times and more recently bad ones as well. This roller coaster of relations has almost counter-intuitively made them more comfortable cooperating with each other since they’ve learned what to expect from their counterparts. The case can therefore be made that the US should rethink the wisdom of unofficially regarding India as its most important South Asian partner and consider reverting back to the days when Pakistan occupied that privileged position. The difference, however, is that Pakistan won’t do America’s bidding any longer and all cooperation must be carried out between equals, not via the traditional patron-proxy relationship. This is unprecedented but is exactly what each country needs right now.
Pakistan won’t fight America’s doomed War on Afghanistan, nor will it curtail relations with China. Rather, it aspires to conduct economic diplomacy with Afghanistan via PAKAFUZ and court more American investment in order to counteract any perceived disproportionate dependence on China. This is the epitome of pragmatism. It doesn’t go against anyone’s interests but actually helps bring all stakeholders closer together. The US’ interest in going along with this is that it could take advantage of Pakistan’s low-cost labour and newly constructed Chinese-backed infrastructure projects to exert economic influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia via PAKAFUZ while simultaneously ensuring that the South Asian state remains “non-aligned” in the New Cold War exactly as Islamabad wants. China is in favour of countries trading more with one another so this wouldn’t threaten it.
Having said that, there are still some forces in the US that continue to adhere to the old way of thinking and thus aren’t interested in treating Pakistan as an equal nor in prioritising geo-economics over geopolitics. They’re of the belief that the US should continue pressuring Pakistan through unconventional means such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in order to compel unilateral strategic concessions from it vis-a-vis Afghanistan and China. This thinking is still in effect to an extent but it’s no longer as successful as it once was. It was actually these counterproductive policies which inspired Pakistan to strengthen its comprehensive strategic partnership with China in a world-changing way by agreeing to BRI’s flagship project that in turn changed the global geostrategic calculus by providing the People’s Republic with direct access to the Indian Ocean via CPEC.
The US cannot stop CPEC nor continue sabotaging it by proxy through India and the latter’s army of Afghan-based non-state actors. Everything is changing with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan so the US must learn how to most effectively advance its interests in this new reality that it’s responsible for creating. The solution is to accept PMIK’s pragmatic outreaches, finally treat Pakistan as an equal, and prioritise geo-economics over geopolitics. The US will certainly retain its strategic military ties with India but these can be balanced by relying on Pakistan as its regional economic base by virtue of that country’s geostrategic position at the crossroads of Eurasia’s most promising markets. The US will have to make some of this century’s most pivotal decisions thus far in the next three months and should place Pakistan at the centre of its calculations.