The virtual meeting is being followed up by an extensive foreign tour by America’s military and diplomatic chiefs this week to Japan, South
Korea and India, where they will look to affirm US military links and build deterrence vis-a-vis China.
Amid all the summitry and jet-setting,
Pakistan notably is not a stop-over destination and so far has no role in Biden’s alliance-building against China. Indeed, the US currently does not have a permanent ambassador in Pakistan as relations plumb their lowest ebb in two decades, or since
the beginning of the Afghanistan war.
Pakistan-US ties have traditionally coalesced under the shadow of big geopolitical events, starting with
the Cold War to the related Soviet-Afghan war to the 9/11-inspired “war on terror” and its associated war in Afghanistan, which 20 years later is just now edging towards a possible conclusion.
The prospect of an end to the war in Afghanistan and the beginning of a new era of US-China confrontation has created a geopolitical conundrum that Pakistan is struggling to crack. Islamabad wants to maintain
good ties with the US despite no overwhelming geopolitical reason for Washington to embrace them.
With Pakistan now seen as a strong economic
and military ally of China, the question confronting Pakistani policymakers is: can Pakistan afford to jump on the US anti-China bandwagon and can it manufacture a non-terrorism-related geopolitical reason to revive its ties with the US?
Not only has China invested billions of dollars in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure and related projects in Pakistan, it has also in recent years become
the country’s top supplier of weapons systems.
With Pakistan and China deepening their strategic ties, the Biden administration’s
drive against China is a serious predicament whereby Pakistan cannot readily take sides as it did during the Cold War vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, or during the “war on terror” vis-a-vis the Taliban – and leverage the antagonism
to its advantage with the US to further its own interests.
The scenario demands a carefully choreographed balancing act, one that enables Pakistan
to maximize its interests without taking a confrontational position against either superpower.
While Pakistan’s economic ties with China
have gathered apace, it still maintains import trade links to the US. By taking an overly pro-China policy, Islamabad would risk its trade and still-substantial economic assistance from the US.
Consider: Whereas China is now Pakistan’s biggest economic partner via the billions invested in CPEC projects, the US is still Pakistan’s top destination for exports, which include textile and agricultural
Trade figures from 2019 show that Pakistan supplied the US with miscellaneous textile articles (US$1.3 billion), knit apparel
($880 million), woven apparel ($607 million), cotton ($161 million), and leather products ($140 million). US imports of agricultural products from Pakistan totaled $125 million.
US imports of goods from Pakistan increased by 5.7% in 2019, with bilateral trade exceeding $6 billion.
Meanwhile, despite China’s multi-billion-dollar investments, Pakistan’s economy is still in the doldrums and in persistent need of US-led International Monetary Fund bailout packages.
Reliance on the IMF, however, represents its own predicament. The IMF is known to view China’s CPEC investments in Pakistan as a debt trap. As such, IMF packages have been linked with
requirements of making the CPEC more transparent and open to scrutiny, which in turn has stressed Pakistan-China ties.
The big question confronting
Pakistani policymakers is how to maintain trade and economic ties with the US without hurting relations with China.
On March 8, Pakistan formed
an “apex committee” to seek and develop avenues to re-engage the US economically.
The committee has been formed in the wake of
a recommendation by Pakistan’s Board of Investment to establish a new US-Pakistan economic zone near Karachi to boost bilateral trade.
committee’s mission, a source familiar with the proceedings said, is to put Pakistan-US ties on a new course that prioritizes geo-economics more than geopolitics.
“This is how Pakistan can probably avoid any unnecessary entanglement in the US-China Cold War and establish a balance between its trade partnership with the US and deep economic and military ties with China,” the source