For Pakistan... China or America?

Are we in the midst of a power-relationship reset with Great Powers?

Inam Ul Haque October 27, 2022
The writer is a retired major general and has an interest in International Relations and Political Sociology. He can be reached at and tweets @20_Inam


Are we in the midst of a power-relationship reset with Great Powers? Is something amiss? Are there new tidings on the event horizon? And what should the mandarins of our foreign policy understand and attempt, besides churning out stale talking points for our youthful foreign minister and a savvier minister of state for foreign affairs during their foreign junkets? How should Pakistan meander its policy course amidst the US-China plus Russia rivalry; US-Saudi chasm; and the war in Ukraine that would only get intense, if the US deep state is any guide?

Damage control was in play after President Joe Biden’s not so off-the-cuff remarks about Pakistan being ‘the most dangerous nation’ possessing ‘nukes without cohesion’, in a speech at Democratic Party Congressional Campaign Committee reception on 13th October 2022. To clarify, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on 15th October stated that President Biden “views a secure and prosperous Pakistan as critical to US interests”. Meanwhile Pakistan protested with the US ambassador in Islamabad. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif rejected the US President’s remarks, reiterating Pakistan was a “responsible nuclear state”.

The controversy was hard on the heels of the COAS’s American yatra that our political pundits were trying very hard to ascribe some ‘meaning’. As opined earlier, it was a delayed, re-scheduled, routine visit of no consequence, other than photo-op and some post-retirement memorabilia. The only feeble effort was perhaps to fillip a faltering relationship that was more intimate military-to-military.

Imran Khan condemned the remarks, dubbing them an “unwarranted conclusion” by President Biden. IK’s second ‘uncalled for’ conclusion in his 15th October tweet read: “...unlike the US which has been involved in wars across the world, when has Pakistan shown aggression, especially post-nuclearization?”

That the statement rattled Pakistani hierarchy is indicative of our domestic imperatives. In other developments, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West, during his interview with Voice of America’s Urdu service (aired last weekend), dismissed the notion that the US needs Pakistan’s interlocution with Afghanistan (IEA), saying “I don’t think we need a third country”. He also clarified the US did not require Pakistan’s airspace to reach Afghanistan.

On the other hand, the US has been involved in interlocution with international community to help Pakistan recover from the devastating floods. Pakistan’s de-listing from the FATF Grey List and some F-16 spares could also be an intelligent conjecture.

There are some broad and visible strands. First, there is ambiguity (intentional or otherwise) amongst the various organs of the US Government, pertaining to its Pakistan policy. And this is not unusual in a democratic dispensation as vast as the US. Second, America’s skepticism about BRI/CPEC and Chinese role in Pakistan creates pro and anti-Pakistan undercurrents. Third, the pro-Indian US cohort has finally got on to the realism of Indo-US relations. For a long time, I had advocated that India would never ride the anti-China bandwagon despite the US inducements. Chanakya Kautilya aka Vishnugupta (375–283 BCE), the Indian sage was preaching statecraft when there was no US. The US-Indian chasm over Ukraine is out in the open, hence some carrots coming Pakistan’s way.

Some foreign policy experts believe opening to Pakistan was US’s signal to both India and China. I had outlined the ‘constants and variables’ of Pak-US bilateralism in my previous writings on the subject. However, the US Administration is giving more credence to the transitory (and mostly negative) ‘variables’, rather than the enduring (and positive) ‘constants’. America is framing its ties through transactional current affairs, like counter-terrorism, support for Ukraine, and nuclear safety, all seemingly carrying Pakistan’s ‘negative’ relevance.

As far as China goes, its bond with Pakistan spans government to government, military to military, industry to industry and people to people. Adherence to and success of the CPEC’s Long-Term Plan (LTP) could have further deep- ened this multi-faceted geostrategic the great chagrin of the US and pro-US elite in Pakistan. Gen Bajwa visited Beijing in September, and now PM Shehbaz is slated to visit the Middle Kingdom. Chinese concerns remain safety of its CPEC workforce in Pakistan. The issue of ETIM-related terrorism also resurfaces occasionally. Other than these relatively minor irritants, Pak-China ties are on a strong and ever-positive trajectory.

Some Indian analysts credit Pak-China bonhomie to the common denominator of a hostile India, built after the 1962 Sino-Indian border dispute; when in 1963, Pakistan ceded Shaksgam Valley to China. The valley was claimed by India. However, this assertion is overtaken by events. CPEC today is the flagship project of the greater BRI, spanning 126 countries and 29 international organisations. With a staggering investment of over $1.3 trillion, ‘The Initiative’ would ultimately cover over 65 countries, 60% of the world-population and 40% of the global GDP. During the recently concluded SCO Summit (15-16 September) in Uzbekistan, President Xi Jinping declared to always stand with Pakistan, irrespective of the situation.

Over the horizon is an emerging Saudi-US chasm, aggravated by Saudi Arabia declining to produce more oil to stabilise and bring down the gas station price for the American consumers, critical for the US mid-term elections in November this year. Pakistan has expressed solidarity with the Kingdom appreciating Saudi concerns for ‘avoiding market volatility’.

Putting it all together, the best course of action for our foreign policy is to cuddle ‘positive and enduring relevance’ with all important countries and avoid bloc politics. There are multiple areas where both Pakistan and the US can cooperate like education, food security, energy, climate change and IT. The US can complement rather than confront the BRI/CPEC, to maintain its own ‘cost effective and positive regional leverage’. Economic relations alone will catapult the critical Pak-US relationship to a new level. Narrow security-focus will feed into anti-Americanism, the ‘being used’ syndrome and other negative fallout.

However, in case of continuing US bellicosity, Pakistan should know where to turn to. A declining superpower or a rising star with colossal power and potential of positivity, alliances and goodwill...the precise tools that made 20th Century, the American Century. It is only a matter of time that the present US/West-led exploitative economic system is replaced by a Chinese alternative, whose contours are visible on the horizon. It will be somewhere in this Century that global power would decidedly shift towards the East.

So, for Pakistan, it is both China and the US...and then China.

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