Pakistan and the new Great Game

Published: January 16, 2012
The writer is a former vice-president of the World Bank and a former caretaker finance minister of Pakistan

The writer is a former vice-president of the World Bank and a former caretaker finance minister of Pakistan

The latest American defence strategy revealed by President Barack Obama, on January 5, could result in the South Asian subcontinent becoming the stage on which the large powers will play the new Great Game. India and Pakistan are likely to find themselves on the opposite side of the new great power divide. It would not be healthy for South Asia if the United States growing concern about China’s increasing influence results in promoting rivalry between China and India. A healthy competition between the two Asian giants will serve the two well. What would not help is Washington’s use of India to balance China’s rise and thus have New Delhi serve its strategic interests.

The deteriorating relations between the US and Pakistan, as result of a series of events in 2011, have presented the policymakers in Washington with a choice. They can work to resolve the differences and remain engaged with the country that remains critical to its long-term — not just short-term — strategic interests or, they can simply walk out of the country as was done in 1989 when Pakistan’s usefulness to the US was diminished after the Soviet Union was pushed out of Afghanistan. There is considerable temptation to adopt the latter approach. That is certainly the case in the US Congress, which has already declared its intention to reduce the amount of military assistance and economic aid promised to Pakistan.

The new US defence strategy, by focusing so much attention on China, is bound to further complicate the situation and add another element in the American-Pakistani equation. With heavy dependence on external flows to retain some dynamism in the economy and with the Americans threatening to reduce their assistance, Islamabad has already reacted by attempting to draw even closer to Beijing. This effort was only partially successful; Beijing, with its eye on Washington, was not inclined to walk into Pakistan to fully compensate for the threatened American withdrawal. But Beijing may rethink its cautious approach. If the defence strategy sends the message to Beijing that China-containment had become the main interest for the US in world affairs, the Chinese may seek to list Islamabad as its partner to counter the American moves. And if the US responds by getting even closer to India what will result is a four-power ‘Great Game’ with America and India seeking to contain China and China and Pakistan working together to limit Washington’s influence in their geographic space. This will be an unhappy development for South Asia.

What is needed instead is a deep American involvement in helping Pakistan to develop its political system and its economy to guide the ongoing revolution in the Middle East and several other Muslim countries into the right channels. Drawing a connection between the Arab Spring and Pakistan’s development as a way of helping the West’s strategic interests may, at first sight, seem a bit of a stretch. But such a link becomes apparent when the dynamic unleashed by the events in the Middle East is put in a historical perspective.

What is at issue now is the direction the Arab Spring is likely to take. The first series of elections in the Arab world — in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt — following the street-inspired revolutions have brought parties with strong Islamic roots into prominence. In Egypt, it is already clear that the party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood will have the largest presence in the newly elected assembly. It has won close to one-half of the seats, while another quarter has gone to the Salafists. The revolution was brought about by disaffected youth but its consequences will not bring them into political power. “So why are so many Arabs voting for parties that seem regressive to Westerners?” asks John M Owen, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and the author of an important book on the clash of ideas and politics. His answer: “Liberalism in the 19-century Europe and Islamism in the Arab world today, are like channels dug by one generation of activists and kept open, sometimes quietly, by future ones. When the storms of revolution arrive, whether in Europe or in the Middle East, the waters will find those channels. Islamism is winning out because it is the deepest and widest channel into which today’s Arab discontent can flow”.

But today’s revolutions are different from those that came earlier; they are taking place in full global view where those participating in them are in constant communication with those watching them. It is unlikely that the liberal forces that relieved the countries of absolutist leadership will easily give way to the dominance of political forces that may take the affected countries towards another form of control. This happened in Iran in the late 1970s. To ensure that Islamists, even if they win elections, will not dispense with liberal democratic forms, the liberal forces are looking for models in which religious parties are embedded within democratic systems.

Pakistan could become such a model if its fledgling democratic system succeeds. Pakistan, at this time, is deeply involved in containing the rise of Islamic extremism. One way to deal with it is to combine the use of force with accommodation. Those not prepared to work within the established legal framework must be dealt with firmly while those inclined to use the norms of democracy to advance their agendas must be given accommodation. Pakistan’s difficult political evolution is being watched by many in the Middle East. If it succeeds, it will be seen as an example to be replicated. However, the United States by withdrawing its support at such a critical time and forcing the new Great Game on South Asia, will unleash another dynamic that could seriously set back the Pakistani experiment. A strong anti-American sentiment would undoubtedly help the Islamic groups and inhibit the more liberal forces. In other words, Washington must look at Pakistan through the lens of the Arab Spring rather than as a player on the other side of the game to contain China.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 17th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (35)

  • Babloo
    Jan 16, 2012 - 11:31PM

    Pakistan must not try to punch above its weight or try to keep up with the Jonasses. The results so far have been very damaging for Pakistan. It can hardly afford it any longer.

    Pakistan is not in the same league as India, China.

    Once delusional misconceptions are eradicat6ed , maybe then saner plicies can be followed.


  • You Said It
    Jan 17, 2012 - 12:09AM

    Pakistan could become such a model if its fledgling democratic system succeeds.

    Mr. Burki’s view illustrates the gulf between the world’s perception of Pakistan and Pakistan’s perception of itself. As the US and European nations look to channel the Arab mainstream towards democracy, the only examples they think about are Turkey and Indonesia. Pakistan with its institutional support for extremists in Afghanistan and non-state actors to destabilize rivals is the furthest example the world sees.

    The US/EU view is also shared by other Muslim states. A recent survey of Bangladesh showed that most look to India, Indonesia and to lesser degree China as role models, and specifically listed Pakistan as the state to not emulate. A similar view was voiced by Afghans, go figure. Egyptians surveyed (including a majority of Muslim Brotherhood supporters) have named Turkey as the role model to follow.

    I get the feeling that nuclear weapons have colored the perspective of even Pakistani intellectuals – we all seem to think that these weapons compensate for all other shortcomings. If such views gain ground, these very strategic assets will become a millstone around our necks.


  • Usman Khan
    Jan 17, 2012 - 12:43AM

    Until this country finds leaders who work only for the interest of Pakistan rather than American or Chinese interest it will go no where. Country is in dire need of gas and electricity, which can be resolved easily if they talk to Iran for Gas and India and China for the electricity, But apparently country’s need is less important than American interest.


  • Socrates
    Jan 17, 2012 - 12:52AM

    More and more of this game is being imagined than being played. The world has become multi polar and every country will have engagements and negotiations with many others. Many will become allies.

    Pakistan , instead of imagining such games, should get into becoming a good citizen of the globe with genuine interest in trade and economics for its people’s good.


  • Cynical
    Jan 17, 2012 - 1:00AM

    Punching above one’s weight is an impulsive reaction of people suffering from a delusion of superiority drawing on real or imagined past glory.
    After a while it becomes a natural reflex.
    No surprise here.


  • fahim
    Jan 17, 2012 - 1:07AM

    spot on with babloo. The author seems in disillusion and trying to inflate own ego by pushing Pak into these equations. Fact is that we are a meager broken economy, with some of the poorest people, lowest health and education index, nose deep in a trillion rupees of external loan, run country by printing money, the epicenter of global problems, ruled by corrupt politicians and “real power holders” with 60% of budget, with no industry, electricity, gas, infrastructure. Why on earth do we want to play with Big Boys?? Also no one cares what we think as internationally we are labelled as trouble makers in every forum. Its time we cut our cloth according to our little budget and stop trying to “somehow” shadow Big Boys to glow in borrowed light like a stooge.


  • sohaib
    Jan 17, 2012 - 1:20AM


    wow what a comment! Since when Pakistan punched above its weight? Like you Indians, Pakistan has no delusions of a superpower. The article is not boastful to warrant such a comment but you Indians are bent upon demonizing any news or opinion about Pakistan.


  • sarah
    Jan 17, 2012 - 3:08AM

    Strange that America had been Pakistan’s supporter (and India’s enemy) for 5 decades.
    The American strategy was unveiled only recently, Pakistan has been acting like China’s slave for years. America did not push Pakistan to China. It is Pakistan which is pushing America to India


  • Arjun
    Jan 17, 2012 - 4:21AM

    So whatever the US is doing is unhelpful but Pakistan’s support to the Haqqani network and other assorted terrorist groups should be glossed over as being part of Pakistan’s strategic interests..



  • Anjaan
    Jan 17, 2012 - 4:26AM

    The article is a sales pitch for Pakistan. The author, like most Pakistanis, is a good sales man. He is trying to sell rotten stuff that no one would ever think of buying, with shameless arguments …… !Recommend

  • Afrasiab Jan
    Jan 17, 2012 - 4:38AM

    Saner Policies never mean to let you do whatever you want in Pakistan. That is not going to happen in your Life time. prepare to leave the world without this desire. Pakistan is Not In India and China’s league. Even an Idiot can see that. I am surprised it took you a decade to find that out. But India is Not in China’s league either. Even a fool can see that. Therefore, do not try to misguide people that India and China are in the same league. China is by all means, the Economic lighthouse of the world now. India is no way near it. Look at yourself and then look at China. Even an idiot can tell you are way of from China in everything. Saner Policies for Pakistan are that it concentrate on It’s own well being instead of looking towards USA or Europe but keep working relationships. Increase trade with China and central Asia, Middle east and countries in its West. That’s the best solution to grow economically .


  • John B
    Jan 17, 2012 - 4:42AM

    The one Important unanswered question is ” Why should US help and be concerned with PAK democracy, any longer?

    Pakistan has always been a beneficiary of US aid since her inception but always stood against US interests even during the cold war. US economic and political aid to PAK came with a heavy price for US since they were always at the expense of India.

    The world has moved beyond cold war world when the first stone of Berlin wall came down. The Asia centric focus of US policy of the twenty-first century is not for US dominance but for the security and peace, which are vital for trade and prosperity for all.

    The rise of Islamic political parties in PAK is inevitable, whether US supports PAK democracy or ignores it.

    The question is what is there for US, China, and India that PAK can offer. PEACE. At present, US thinking is to ignore PAK and let China handle PAK as she has done N. Korea.

    Hope now it is clear to all. PAK should understand Trade wars and political discordance are of low priority compared to Peace and US, India, and China are one in this view. PAK democracy can either be a beneficiary or a casualty for regional peace. It is up to the PAK people to decide and all powers will go along with whichever form of PAK government offers peace.

    Who will offer stability and peace in PAK? Military, Civil or religious parties in the future? US, India, and China are with them, democracy in PAK or not.


  • sarita talwai
    Jan 17, 2012 - 8:19AM

    We should stop viewing everything through the rose coloured prism of the U.S.Every country has to have its own agenda.Since the main players are neighbours-India ,Pakistan and China,it makes good sense to use all soft options to develop and promote healthy trade and free exchange of ideas. artists,writers ,thinkers,the media,students ,doctors,teachers….we have so many WMDs to destroy suspicions,mistrust,poverty,disease,intolerance .With more than half the world’s population in our neighbourhood we owe it to them to them to be pragmatic and,diplomatic.


  • Noor
    Jan 17, 2012 - 11:37AM

    Those not prepared to work within the established legal framework must be dealt with firmly

    Which legal framework? Islam is the guiding principle for all law making in Pakistan as per Objectives Resolution, Constitution of Pakistan & the ideology itself!

    Shouldn’t we rather explore original laws of Islam and implement them, rather than just snubbing the religious parties working for their own gains?


  • Ronnie B
    Jan 17, 2012 - 12:22PM

    The author seems to be a nice enough gentlman, educated and uncomfortable with the language of hate unlike most other Pakistani commentators. However, the days have long gone when any nation would look upon Pakistan as an example of anything other than what not to do. The blunt truth is that Pakistan is an experiment that has failed. Any discussion other than how to peacably bring about a Free Baluchistan and a Free Pushtunistan is a distraction from the task to manage the break-up of Pakistan. There will be a free Baluchistan and a free Pushtunistan; the only question is when and how. We should work toward making this come about in as peaceful a manner as possible..


  • Chetan
    Jan 17, 2012 - 2:56PM

    This article will just add to the suspicion and enemity between the readers of Pakistan and India, other than that it does not add any value to the future of both nations. Every nation is marching towards its goal. Speculation will not add any value, instead it worsens the relationship.


  • let there be peace
    Jan 17, 2012 - 3:33PM

    So confusing. Pakistan’s strategists should make it clear if they want Americans to stay in Afghanistan or to get out of it.Recommend

  • let there be peace
    Jan 17, 2012 - 4:04PM

    I agree with some comments that we Indians tend to underestimate Pakistan’s importance and capabilities. After all Pakistan is the strategically most important part of what was once India (that is the most important of the reasons why Imperialist British ‘created’ Pakistan.)
    So, strategically Pakistan will never be irrelevant. But going by its ideology and history so far, their role will be mostly negative and destructive.
    I wish Pakistan was created in Arabia or Antarctica.


  • sudhir
    Jan 17, 2012 - 6:47PM

    If Pakistan wants to survive ,it must keep away from games played by big boys.


  • G. Din
    Jan 17, 2012 - 7:25PM

    Absent in all this incisive analysis is the historical perspective. Bluntly speaking, China is nothing more than an American sweat shop. Japan provided exactly the same kind of a facility for US just after WWII. With one great and telling difference, though. Japan already had a reasonably large industrial economy before it entered WWII, China did not have any. China just produces the goods from inputs of American capital, American designs, American machine tools and -most importantly – American management with most of it going to American markets. Its only contribution is cheap labour. Take America out and what is left? Nothing but the wastelands created in a backbreaking race to prosperity. China has created huge debts by way of degradation of ecology which will come back to haunt it. It has created a huge infrastructure to service the current booming economy for which there would not be any use when the bust comes as it inevitably must at some point in time. Nature reduces even impressive concrete structures to rubble – or exacts a huge price for their maintenance which China can ill afford in future. The boom has brought a sizable increase in wages which is already threatening its exports as American companies have started to return home. Then, political landscape is also becoming quite tenuous. When people become prosperous, even if temporarily, they are much less likely to be amenable to the demands of a totalitarian command structure resulting in assertion of individual freedoms to the detriment of peace in the country. For all these reasons and many more, China’s tendency would be well-advised to hunker down and back off to the challenges to its hegemony over those around it in its region. Already, practically all its neighours, including India, have joined in an informal union to challenge it in South China sea. China, with internal challenges from Tibet and Xingiang movements has neither the resources nor the stamina to stand in opposition. If it is wise, as Chinese proverbially are supposed to be, it will look to example of Japan’s current standing after enjoying a manufactured boom by the same American capital, American designs, American machine tools and American management in the fifties of the last century. Japan’s is a sick economy today and though still in the American camp it does not enjoy any or all of its perks. Where does India stand in all this? It continues to lumber along busying itself in satisfying its own internal demands on its own terms. I suspect the world is looking at the Indian model with some keen interest. Pakistan can be noticed in all this by only the delusional ones amongst them!Recommend

  • whoever
    Jan 17, 2012 - 9:07PM


    No one in at least Asia cares Pakistan . Pakistan is hell bent to destroy itself . Nobody wants to harm Pakistan .


  • antanu g
    Jan 17, 2012 - 9:54PM

    even india is not in league with china…correct yourself.


  • Falcon
    Jan 17, 2012 - 10:38PM

    Interesting article. I have wondered about this for some time now. It does seem that polarization of the region is likely, may be not a hard one but at least a soft one. I think two countries you have left out of this geopolitical calculus are Iran and Russia. As far as Pakistan is concerned, it would be ideal if we don’t end up holding someone else’ gun like we always have in the past. Let others fight it out on their own, we don’t have the resources to go through this once again.


  • Falcon
    Jan 17, 2012 - 10:42PM

    @G. Din:
    Your analysis is very reasonable. However, you might want to factor in China’s growing investment in emerging markets and therefore politico-economic export diversification that will reduce its reliance on US in coming decades.


  • Dr.waqar
    Jan 17, 2012 - 11:32PM

    Pakistan must give its policy statement that whether America should stay in Afghanistan or not.Pakistan must clarify that what threaten her by presence of America in Afghanistan.And why India should not use the situation in her own favor when Pakistan is unable to do that.


  • G. Din
    Jan 18, 2012 - 3:01AM

    “…you might want to factor in China’s growing investment in emerging markets and therefore politico-economic export diversification that will reduce its reliance on US in coming decades.”
    Your point is well taken. The reason I did not allude to this is because outposts rarely, if ever, save the mother country. Their contribution is at best supplemental. Demise of colonialism is an obvious example. Couple that with the fact that wherever China has invested, it has shown a penchant for running it almost exclusively employing Chinese from the mother country. This has created a lot of heart-burn in all such countries, including in Pakistan. Today’s news is that Chinese economy is slowing down. The fear, however, is that its pace may be much too fast for comfort. I hope they are able to slow down the slowing down!
    To those (Pakistanis) on this forum who gleefully point to the much too obvious fact that India is lagging Chinese, I would like to suggest reflection on the hypothesis that one should be wise enough not ever to shoot for the first place but always for the second or third place. There are very good practical reasons for such a policy. Confucius say: “Make haste slowly, slowly.” Confucius was a wise old bloke, indeed.


  • Arijit Sharma
    Jan 18, 2012 - 4:08AM

    @antanu g: ” …even india is not in league with china…correct yourself.

    Not trying to be corny, but we are in a league of our own.

    And do remember that the now so high and mighty China is so because of America’s generosity ( and stupidity ). Recommend

  • Surya
    Jan 18, 2012 - 10:25AM

    @antanu g:
    India will get to the league of US when it gets rid of traitors like you. Based on your relativity theory China will take another 100 years to reach the levels. Economy is just one part of overall part of a country’s development. Copy cats like China will need to be innovative like US to be their competitor. To me, given the right environment, Pakistan could be more innovative than China.


  • Murali
    Jan 18, 2012 - 9:34PM

    The deteriorating relations between the US and Pakistan, as result of a series of events in 2011, have presented the policymakers in Washington with a choice. They can work to resolve the differences and remain engaged with the country that remains critical to its long-term — not just short-term — strategic interests or, they can simply walk out of the country as was done in 1989 when Pakistan’s usefulness to the US was diminished after the Soviet Union was pushed out of Afghanistan.

    Mr. Burki’s statement gives a feeling that the US or other other countries owe Pakistan a favour. They do not. In today’s world it is the economy that determines your usefulness. Poor relatives are often treated with less respect and that is the case with Pakistan. As long as the Generals call the shots, aided and abetted by weak politicians and institutions, Pakistan will never be a strategic partner to anyone. It can only be at best a useful one from time to time. Pakistan needs to make peace with India to profit from her economic resurgence, unfortunately the leadership still indulges in a zero-sum game vis-a-vis India. The only option for Pakistan is to resolve its inner contradictions (created by itself) and move on. Favours are not granted, they are earned.Recommend

  • Abhi
    Jan 18, 2012 - 11:31PM

    @Afrasiab Jan:
    you sir are loyal then the queen :)
    or may be more loyal to china then Chinese themselves.
    God Speed.


  • Arya
    Jan 19, 2012 - 12:14AM

    Midnight’s children still estranged and disaffected by each other’s actions 64 years after the split. It is time to bury the hatchet and let the grandchildren of Midnight’s children prosper through sound policies implemented by its respective leaders.

    All this posturing and muscle flexing by two weak opponents that cannot punch their way out of a paper bag is hilarious.


  • G. Din
    Jan 19, 2012 - 6:58PM

    “…It is time to bury the hatchet and let the grandchildren of Midnight’s children prosper “
    I hate to repeat it: History does alter and has altered the DNA of the hatchet-wielders. Just burying the hatchet would not do. DNA takes generations if not centuries to change.
    “All this posturing and muscle flexing by two weak opponents that cannot punch their way out of a paper bag is hilarious. “
    Enjoy the “hilarious” spectacle and take your time doing so. Some people just cannot bring themselves to face the reality that we are not “bhai-bhai”. Even twins, when they grow up, follow their separate life trajectories. If you consider yourself to be one of those “Midnight’s children” ( most of us don’t), obvious thing to do for you would be to migrate to a haven for kindred souls because it is going to take more than your lifetime to change the state of things.


  • Arya
    Jan 19, 2012 - 8:54PM

    @ G Din

    You are South Asian and your ancestors were Hindus and Buddhists and no amount of pretentious posturing will change this fact. You are not Arab, Persian or Afghan and you will never be accepted as such by the above mentioned, so better put your lot with your kindred souls in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives or as I like to call it Greater India.

    As for me I am a Pashtun living with my kindred souls in the greatest of nations called the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.


  • Sanjeev
    Jan 19, 2012 - 9:41PM

    The author has taken a 5 year view, and then tried to extropolate the permutations and combinations that can occurr in relationship in near future between US, China and India.

    The underlying truth is all the three countries are Hegemonic in nature – They will use their power (soft/hard/money/intellectual) to have their respective countries interest paramount.

    For last 3 decades US has a free hand in terms of pushing their intrest ahead, but maybe in a decade and a half in half in future, it wont have a free hand as China would become more defiant and the global power of balance would tilt towards it, but it would be still a tough fight between the two.

    By 2030 India too will be on a roll, and the real equation as to who will succedd and lead in future depends upon how their interest converge or creates friction, so currently US feels to have their supremacy for next 40 to 50 years they need India or China as their partner.

    In case China and India have a better partnership the US will find it hard to lead after 15 years in future.

    As everyone invests in future so is the American strategy in Asia, but only time will tell how things shape up.


  • G. Din
    Jan 20, 2012 - 12:44AM

    “As for me I am a Pashtun living with my kindred souls in the greatest of nations called the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. “
    I am glad you are a Pashtun and living where you are. Isn’t that exactly as I had suggested?
    As for the rest of your comment, I can see you have just recently discovered ET. Keep reading it regularly. It is a great paper and we shall meet again on its pages!
    The era of hegemonies is long past, my friend.


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