Strong case for regionalizing Pakistan’s foreign policy
With the US-China rivalry turning fast into a ‘New Cold War’ and the US openly calling for an anti-China coalition, there is no gainsaying that the geo-political calculus is changing both regionally and globally.
Pakistan, being a country with close relations with both the US and China, would obviously have some tough decisions to make. It has to engage in deft diplomacy to balance its relations with the two countries and avoid unnecessary entanglement in the new ‘bi-polar’ politics.
Frictions notwithstanding, Pakistan’s political economy is still deeply linked with the US. The Afghan scenario is still unfolding; the IMF bailout package is working in Pakistan and the US remains Pakistan’s largest export market. On the other hand, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has once again gained pace, despite US criticism of the project. And, the recently announced China-Iran deal shows how deftly China has put itself in the driver’s seat as far as regional connectivity projects are concerned.
The US decision to shut down China’s Houston Consulate is the latest incident in a series of developments in the US-China saga that had taken place over the last two years, particularly since the beginning of the US-China ‘trade war.’
It must be noted that an important reason for why the US is building an anti-China narrative is the on-going Presidential election process in the US and the way the US President is looking to use the ‘China card’ to buttress his political position. As reports show, Trump is using this card by blaming China for both the uncontrollable spread of COVID-19 and the US’ economic worries.
Domestic politics aside, the fast-declining US influence in the global political system combined with the fast-increasing Chinese influence also appears to be strong enough reasons for the US to trigger a ‘New Cold War’ and build a ‘coalition’ under its leadership. The US would thus be able to re-position itself as the ‘leader of the Free World’ as it did during the US-Soviet Cold War years.
“We hope we can build out a coalition that understands the threat and will work collectively to convince the Chinese Communist Party that it is not in their best interest to engage in this kind of behaviour,” Pompeo told reporters alongside British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
“We want to see every nation which understands freedom and democracy...to understand this threat that the Chinese Communist Party is posing to them”, Pompeo added.
With the US still present militarily in Afghanistan and looking to expand economically and politically in the Central Asian region, it is almost certain that a lot of this ‘New Cold War’ will take place in Asia, leaving countries like Pakistan, where the US and China are already vying for influence, with a difficult foreign policy scenario.
Unlike the US-Soviet Union cold war years when Pakistan found in the US more ‘ideological compatibility’ than in the Communist Soviet Union, the ‘New Cold War’ does not have strong ideological binaries (communism vs. capitalism), which means that regional players will have to come up with a new kind of calculus.
Considering the impact of China-led regional connectivity programs, Pakistan can and should rely on geography as the fundamental determinant of its foreign policy choices in the future. By placing geography as the centrepiece of its foreign relations, Pakistan will regionalise its orientation. Such regionalisation offers some useful dividends as well.
For instance, while Pakistan enjoys cordial relations with China and is deeply integrated with it, the China-Iran deal offers Pakistan a golden opportunity to improve its relations with Iran, positioning itself as a key conduit in an energy and trade corridor linking the Eurasian hinterland with both South Asian and Gulf markets and ports.
There is no gainsaying that Pakistan’s preference for regionally integrating itself will leave a negative impact on its relations with the US. This is particularly so in the context of the prevailing combative mood in the US vis-à-vis China.
Pakistan, in this case, should use its leverage in Afghanistan to balance its relations and neutralise the impact that its relations with China can have on its relations with the US.
Even though the US is looking to withdraw from Afghanistan, it does see a long-term role for Pakistan in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, acting as a balancer and a ‘peace keeper’ to help avoid the country’s drift into yet another civil war.
Pakistan can use its continuing partnership with the US in Afghanistan and stress that although it values its relations with the US, it cannot afford to isolate itself regionally. Given the extent of CPEC investment in Pakistan, adopting regional isolation and rejecting connectivity by becoming a (junior) partner in the US’ global anti-China coalition is not a realistic approach.