The US-Pakistan engagement is back. Historically, the two countries have not remained estranged for long before re-engaging. But the irony is they did not stay together long before separating again. Their relationship has been almost like a marriage where the couple can neither do without each other nor live together.
Traditionally, it has been a need-based but conflicted relationship, lacking strategic consensus and continuity. As a consequence, the two countries’ needs were only partially met, expectations fell short, and gains came at a cost, setting them up for disappointments made worse by the politics of the relationship on both sides. Their public perceptions of each other have darkened over the years, especially in Pakistan which now finds itself in the grip of anti-Americanism.
Will the re-engagement make a difference? Yes, but only if the US relates to Pakistan differently. Analyst Raja Mohan writing in the Indian Express recently observed: “Pakistan occupies a vital piece of real estate that sits between the subcontinent, Iran, Arabia, Central Asia, Russia and China” and is too important to be isolated. The US of course has long known this. But has anything changed for Washington to act differently this time? Indeed.
The 21st century’s shifting power balance, economic opportunities, geopolitics, and post-9/11 security threats have changed South Asia. It is no longer a battleground for ideological conflicts as during the Cold War but is becoming an arena for great power competition. To meet these challenges and opportunities, overlapping coalitions among regional and global players are emerging in which Pakistan and the US find themselves on the wrong side of each other. And they are trying to correct that.
The stimulus for change has come from both sides though the initiative may have come from Washington, which is finally focusing on Pakistan having been freed from the Afghanistan war and provided a strategic pause by India’s ambivalence over the Ukraine war.
Pakistan has no doubt facilitated this shift through the so-called Bajwa doctrine indicating that given its economic vulnerabilities, political instability and the realisation that China cannot be the answer to all its challenges, the country needs to lower temperatures in its relations with India, and reach out to Washington.
As for America’s compulsions, the Ukraine war may have offered a reality check to US perceptions of its place in the world. Except for Europe and close allies like Australia and Japan, no other country has been fully supportive of Washington. They have been deferential to the economic influence and strategic weight of Russia and China.
US attempts to isolate China have not succeeded either. Country after country has been telling Washington that forcing them to choose between the US and China is bad policy. Now America is walking back from this policy and trying to join the competition with China. It has started with Asean and has now come to Pakistan.
But ties with Pakistan are not defined by the China factor alone. Pakistan is at the confluence of many US interests relating to security concerns, geopolitics and global governance: China, Russia, Taliban, counterterrorism, non-proliferation, the security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets and climate change.
The US does not have critical economic interests in Pakistan but its economic ties with the latter have become crucial to its concerns there. It will help Pakistan’s stability, make it an effective partner and address the growing anti-Americanism.
Washington is in a hurry and almost competing with Imran Khan for public attention. Pakistan’s economic woes, especially after the floods, have been an opportunity to provide visible help. Nearly $100 million in flood aid has already been announced and more could come. Washington also wants to help in healthcare and education.
The US realises that the old security-focused ‘army first’ and time-specific model of relations will no longer work. No wonder the emphasis during Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s recent visit to the US was on expanding ties with Pakistan in the economic area beyond traditional security issues.
Many areas of potential cooperation including energy technology, agriculture and IT are being discussed. It helps that the State Department’s special representative for commercial and business affairs, Dilawar Syed, is a Pakistani American.
The economic focus is also the best way for the US to compete with China. Besides, it may put Pakistan on track to realising its geo-economics aspirations that could foster a rethink on relations with India. At least Pakistan will try not to undermine Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy just as America won’t try to confront Pakistan’s strategic ties with China.
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor Georgetown University and Visiting Senior Research Fellow National University of Singapore.