Substantially shifting the focus of US foreign policy from the Middle East to the East Asia, the Obama administration ambitiously launched its ‘pivot to Asia’ regional strategy in 2012. Under this US foreign policy initiative, the US will endeavour to increasingly relocate its extensive military and economic resources in the Asia Pacific region, realising the utmost economic, political and military significance of this region in the twenty-first century. This US regional strategy includes actions like engaging with regional multilateral organisations, strengthening bilateral security alliances, forging an active broad-based military presence, deepening relationship with emerging powers, expanding trade and investment, and advancing democracy and human rights in the region.

Presently, the US is proactively manoeuvring to exploit the ASEAN forum to articulate its broader economic and strategic interests in the East Asian region. Similarly, comprising twelve Pacific rim countries, the recently-formed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is also being widely viewed in the context of US pivot to Asia strategy. Besides this, the US is also seeking to strengthen close economic and security ties with important regional countries, namely Japan, Australia, South Korea, Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. Now the US has also started flexing its military muscle after showing considerable military presence in Asia Pacific region.

There is a general perception that the US pivot to Asia strategy is nothing but another important tool of its so-called China containment policy in this region. It only aims at minimising, or rather undermining, the rising economic and political influence of China in the world. At present, the US economy is in trouble on account of the current global financial crisis and a number of domestic economic constraints. The long-term viability of the US economic model is also being questioned. Therefore, the US is wary of the rapidly growing Chinese economy, which already has become world’s largest economy in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). China has also become the global hub for manufacturing, and the largest manufacturing economy as well as the largest export of goods in the world.

The ever-growing economy of China now necessarily requires efficient and economical international connectivity. Therefore, aims at improving connectivity and cooperation among certain Eurasian countries, China has conceived the ‘One Belt-One Road’ plan, consisting of two main components – a land-based Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), and an ocean-going Maritime Silk Road (MSR). At present, there can be observed a sort of tug of war between the US and China over exercising greater control over the strategically significant South China Sea. China exclusively claims its sovereignty over the entire sea. On the other hand, the US is advocating for the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in accordance with 1982 United Nation Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Interestingly, the US is among the few countries which have yet not ratified the UNCLOS.

As a matter of fact, besides the East Asia, the South Asian region has also become the primary hub of US extensive strategic manoeuvring in Asia over a period of time. Therefore, notwithstanding its typical ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy, South Asia is now playing a pivotal role in articulating and realising US strategic goals in the region. Bordering China, Iran, and Central Asian Republics, South Asia is bounded on the south by the Indian Ocean, which provides the major sea route connecting the Middle East, Africa, and Europe to East Asia and Australia. Thus this region is central to the so-called One Belt, One Road plan. The flagship OBOR project of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is also located in this region. Therefore, South Asia is by no means strategically less important to the US than East Asia.

At present, India and Afghanistan are occupying a central position in the US ‘pivot to South Asia’ strategy. On the pretext of fighting its War on Terror, the US has been staying in Afghanistan since 2001. Ever since, it has spent its enormous economic and military resources apparently to stabilise the volatile Hindukush state. However, its broader strategic interests demand its active presence in the region. The US launched the Operation Resolute Support Mission as soon as it concluded the UN-mandated Operation Enduring Freedom in 2014. Now, through Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), the US is justified in staying in Afghanistan until the end of 2014.

Besides Afghanistan, India is another important tool employed by the US to articulate and materialise its strategic goals in the South Asia. Certainly, both the US and India are ‘natural allies’ when it comes to contain or marginalise the role of China in this region. The US has fostered close economic, military and strategic relations with India during the last couple of years. The US is extending full nuclear cooperation to India as both countries have formally inked a Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008. Presently, it is also proactively endeavouring to secure India’s membership for the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Reportedly, the US is now also seriously considering granting India a full strategic partner status. Last week, Indian PM Modi addressed a joint session of US Congress in Washington DC. Indeed, it is an honour which is traditionally reserved for America’s closest allies.

The US has greatly helped India consolidate its position in Afghanistan. Now India is ambitiously desirous of replacing the US in Afghanistan as its ‘successor in interest’ in the region since the US is gradually withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. India is also trying to diligently reciprocate America’s current goodwill posture. India firmly supports US’ current stance of freedom of Navigation Operations in South China Sea. Somehow modifying its previous ‘Look East policy’ a bit, India has recently devised the ‘Act East Policy’, essentially making it more compatible with the US ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy. In line with this policy, now India, along with Japan and US, has just begun a trilateral marine war game, the Malabar Naval Exercise, close to the South China Sea.

Now the US and India are all set to proactively pursue their broader strategic goals in South Asia. Recently, India, Afghanistan and Iran signed a tripartite agreement to develop Iranian Chabahar port and a linked trade corridor. There is a perception that this project primarily aims at undermining the strategic importance and relevance of Pakistan’s Gwadar port. The US recent drone attack in Pakistan, killing the Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, has put a decisive nail in the coffin of Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) initiatives, diminishing the already-dim prospects of peace in Afghanistan. Earlier, aimed at bringing antagonist Afghan factions and government on negotiating table, the so-called Murree peace process has met a similar fate owing to the uncompromising and unaccommodating attitude of the Afghan government and the US. Therefore, now the US alone will determine the timing and the terms of peace in the region.

Pakistan, being the time-tested and closest friend of China, obviously won’t facilitate the US in the accomplishment of its strategic ambitions vis-à-vis China in the South Asia. At the moment, Pakistan’s strategic, security and economic interests observably converge with that of China in this region. Both countries will equally benefit from the ‘game changing’ mega economic project – the CPEC. Therefore, Pakistan will proactively protect the mutual interests of both countries. In order to provide security to Chinese nationals working on the CPEC project in Pakistan, the Pakistan Army has already established a Special Security Division (SPD), comprising more than 17 thousand security personnel.

Analysing the current geo-strategic perspective and ground realities in the region, the troubled Pak-US relations are likely to further deteriorate in future. The very signal given by the US through recent drone attack should not be ignored. It has already declined to subsidise the sale of eight F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. Pakistan needs not to be overoptimistic about instantly improving bilateral ties with the US. Pakistan must shed its Cold War-era mind-frame. Indeed, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. The world has changed altogether.

Keeping in view the ever-changing geopolitical and geostrategic realities, Pakistan has to re-evaluate and reformulate its foreign policy as well as security policy in the region. Obviously, it can no longer afford to stay isolated in the region. Pakistan will have to face tougher challenges if the US and India choose to actively pursue their cunningly-planned strategic objectives in the South Asia. Presently, Pakistan is the most vulnerable player in the ongoing zero-sum game between world’s two economic giants – a treacherous game which is being zealously played in the South Asian playground.