US, China and Pakistan: No ‘reset’ in US-Pak ties, can China step in please?


Manzoor Ahmed--

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to the US in end July was the 43rd visit by a Pakistani leader to America since May 1950. The nature of the current US-Pakistan relationship could not be better exemplified by the fact that no US official received PM Imran Khan at the airport. That apart, discussions with officials in the US administration did not indicate that President Trump was in any mood to ‘reset’ relations. The transactional nature of the US Administration was revealed when the it resumed limited military aid to Pakistan, but in the same breadth also announced an extension of existing military sales/service to India.

All accounts of the meetings between President Trump and PM Khan indicate that US officials focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts. PM Khan was accompanied by Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa and ISI Chief Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, which demonstrates the reality that the Pak Army did most of the talking with administration officials. While Trump in his usual fashion hailed Imran Khan as a ‘great’ and ‘tough’ leader, the results of visits were not as successful as Pakistan and its media is claiming it to be. Unfortunately, Pakistan is staking a claim to control the situation in Afghanistan that belies its very approach, which aims to increase Taliban control over Afghanistan and is no panacea for a successful withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

From the US administration’s perspective, the US-Pakistan relationship needs to be improved only if there is action shown by Pakistan vis-a-vis Afghanistan. Till such time, a reset in ties is not on the cards. Therefore, a full restoration of security assistance, resumption of high-level dialogues or other signs of repaired relations are unlikely in the near future. Current geo-politics suggests that a reset in US-Pakistan ties would help to balance Pakistan-China ties is an interesting, but wishful analysis. This is the point made by Arif Rafiq in the South China Morning Post (24 July 2019). Arif Rafiq, is President of Vizier Consulting LLC and a non-resident scholar of the Middle East Institute attempts to balance US and China in his efforts to get the best of both worlds.

Arif makes the point that ‘A US-Pakistan “reset” may ease pressure on Pakistan at the Financial Action Task Force and other international forums. Likewise, renewed aid and investment would not only improve stability in Pakistan and reduce Islamabad’s dependence on Beijing, it will make Chinese aid and investment in Pakistan – worth billions of dollars – more secure’. While in principle, this point is well taken, one must go deeper into the ties that Pakistan has with the US and China in order to understand the current realities.

The first truism in the current situation is that China does not benefit from better relations between Islamabad and Washington. If the past is any indication, it is clear that China was waiting for US-Pak ties to sour so that they could step in. CPEC was the game changer; before that it was arms sales to Pakistan. Even in the 1960s and 1970s, the Pakistan inventory had substantial quantities of Chinese weapons and equipment. From 2008-17, Pakistan was the No 1 buyer of Chinese arms sales, with its expenditure of about US$6 billion, accounting for 42 per cent of China’s total weapons sales. To therefore, suggest, as Arif Rafiq does, that “Chinese officials have regularly counselled their Pakistani counterparts” to improve relations with the US, is to lead analysts up the garden path!
Arif points out that “Chinese companies, workers, and material have flowed into Pakistan for CPEC construction. These firms enjoy high returns on investment while Pakistani consumers foot the bill for security guarantees.....but CPEC is by no means an exercise in altruism”. If this reality is an admitted fact, then why make claims about CPEC being a result of bad economic planning by Pakistan?
In the case of Pakistan, Chinese economic assistance, diplomatic support and military aid, are merely an alternative to the US which has become ‘unreliable’ in the recent past. This is more to do with convenience than with any real conviction that China’s ties with Pakistan provide Islamabad with the means to defy the US and keep India on the edge. Somebody should remind Arif that Nepal is a past master at this game, while Pakistan is not far behind. The only difference is that Pakistan is today too far taken in by China’s CPEC and that will show negative results in the long run for Pakistan.
Recall also that the US has put enormous pressure on Pakistan to fulfil its guarantees under the FATF and other international agreements. The reason why a reset in relations is currently distant is both because the US does not want it currently and because Pakistan is unable to fully deliver on its promises. The deep state in Pakistan continues to see value in using non-state actors as an instrument of state policy.
One is a little astounded by the assertion by Arif that when it comes to Pakistan, China and the US have joined in an informal “burden-sharing” arrangement. The necessity of burden-sharing can only arise if both the US and China share the same concerns about Pakistan and its future. Even a cursory glance at the priorities attached by China and the US will show the diametrically different approaches. Pakistan is a cold war baby which the US no longer wants to hold, except in the case of Afghanistan. Even here, as pointed out above, Pakistan today is less willing to help the US in Afghanistan because it is the driving force behind the Taliban and wants the Taliban to win power.
Driving a hard bargain with Trump, Pakistan has sought full restoration of military aid, in return for ensuring Taliban’s good behaviour. However, the US has made headway in talks with the Taliban with a little help from Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the eighth round of talks are currently underway in Doha. To that extent, Pakistan has less of a handle to successfully negotiate peace in Afghanistan with arms from the US today than it did before. What Pakistan has managed to do, and successfully so far, is to ensure that Taliban continues to be well armed and equipped to fight the Afghan state. This support is vital to keep the Taliban’s military strength up to date while it negotiates a peace plan with the US. This being the case, the US in its transactional state of mind, hopes to withdraw from Afghanistan with the Taliban declaring the Al Qaeda, persona non grata! The past should be an eye-opener to the US in this regard, but let us wait and watch.
At the end of the day, if the US withdraws from Afghanistan, then China stands to benefit the most. China will then try and target Afghanistan as its next colony after Pakistan. China, the new neo-colonial empire is ready to step in if the US should leave Afghanistan tomorrow. That is the unstated message that Beijing is sending out. Is the US even listening?