When Prime Minister Imran Khan was invited at the White House in July 2019, it was a remarkable turnaround in the bilateral ties given how then president Donald Trump bashed Pakistan earlier for not doing enough in the fight against terrorism.
The July 22, 2019 meeting between Trump and Imran was made possible by Trump’s close aide Senator Lindsey Graham, who became a fan of the Pakistani prime minister and partly because of the role played by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
The two leaders subsequently met at the side-lines of the UN General Assembly session as well as at the margins of the World Economic Forum in Davos. This was rare that in the span of a few months, the US president had met a Pakistani prime minister that frequently. The reason for this bonhomie stemmed from Pakistan’s support to ensure safe exit for the remaining US troops from Afghanistan.
On the fact of it, that seemed positive for Pakistan but in reality, the Trump administration had significantly downgraded relationship with Islamabad, according to officials and retired diplomats. During Trump’s tenure, the US did not appoint a full-time ambassador to Islamabad, while reducing the official level engagement to the level of assistant secretary of state.
With Trump has now left the White House, Pakistan is looking forward to revive the high-level engagement with the US under the Biden presidency.
Biden, who became the 46th President of the United States, is someone who knows Pakistan and this region better than any other US presidents, given the fact that for decades he headed all the powerful US Foreign Relations Committee. He had also worked closely with Pakistan as vice president during president Obama’s 8-year term.
“This can work in the advantage of Pakistan,” said a senior Pakistani official, who is optimistic that relationship between Pakistan and the US may see a positive turn under the new US administration.
Pakistan is in touch with the Biden’s team particularly on Afghanistan, which is a major priority of the US at the moment. Pakistan’s Ambassador to US Asad Majid Khan was in Islamabad, recently, and held talks with officials concerned to share his perspective about the incoming administration as well as seek guidance from the government to pursue Pakistan’s interests, according to official sources.
Pakistan believes that the new US administration would stick to the Afghan peace process, although US Secretary of State-designate Anthony Blinkin told Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing that Biden administration intended to review the peace deal with the Taliban. He, however, underlined that like Trump administration, the Biden team would want peaceful withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“There is a certainly a great possibility of the relationship moving in a positive trajectory during President Biden’s term,” said Jalil Abbas Jilani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US. Jilani, who also served as Pakistan’s foreign secretary, believes that President Biden knows Pakistan and its importance, not just in the context of Afghanistan but overall, in the regional perspective.
Biden, who as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, worked on the Kerry-Lugar bill that sought to provide massive civilian assistance to Pakistan as part of the Obama administration’s incentive to Islamabad so that the country could go after all terrorist outfits.
The Kerry-Lugar bill also envisaged high-level engagement, covering not just security but also other areas in an effort to dispel the impression that relationship between Pakistan and the US were security driven. Jilani, as foreign secretary, had attended those high-level talks.
The former top diplomat feels that there is a possibility that under the Biden administration that mechanism may be revived. He suggested the current government to push for the revival of high-level engagement between the two countries that is, he believes, essential to understand each other’s view.
Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry, who also served both Pakistan’s ambassador to US and the foreign secretary, also sees opportunities for Pakistan for better ties under the Biden term. He agrees with Jilani that under Trump there was no high-level engagement between the two countries.
Although, Biden may not revert to the high-level dialogue during Obama’s term, there is a great possibility of new mechanism of reaching out to Pakistan, according to Aizaz Chaudhry, who currently heads the Institute of Strategic Studies.
Relations between Pakistan and the US have often been termed as transactional. Experts advocate a shift in that approach as far as Pakistan is concerned. Aizaz thinks that Pakistan has lot more to offer than just Afghanistan. “There is a desire on part of Pakistan that the US should see relationship with us not through the lens of China and India,” he said.
While Pakistan has tense ties with India over the longstanding Kashmir dispute, Islamabad has a strategic partnership with China, something that the US does not look favourably. There is a bipartisan consensus in the US that China’s rise as the next global power has to be stopped.
For that purpose, the successive US governments have been deepening ties with India so that it could act as counterbalance to China. The recent declassified ‘Indo-Pacific Framework’ by the Trump administration clearly illustrated how US is desperate to curtain the rise of China.
But Jilani feels that under the Biden administration the rhetoric on China will reduce, although he admits that the overall policy towards China would remain the same. The lowering of rhetoric would naturally help Pakistan, the former ambassador said.
The other positive, both retired diplomats and officials here see during the Biden’s presidency, is the possible revival of Iran nuclear deal. “That will be the most significant move if that happens,” said a Foreign Office official. The revival of the Iran nuclear deal would reduce tensions in the region in a scenario that suits Pakistan, according to the official.
On India, there may not be a dramatic or visible shift in the US policy under Biden but privately his administration may get tough on the Modi government whether its human rights abuses in occupied Kashmir or mistreatment of Indian minorities, as per the officials and experts.