Pakistan-US relations have been transactional and not all-weather. Even a slight swing in relations from either country has been viewed as a breach of faith, to begin another spell of sanctions and crippled diplomatic ties. It has happened so often that now both the countries have earned the reputation of being in a marriage of convenience, where neither of them can afford a divorce. The US is faced with the compulsion to engage with Pakistan due to its geostrategic location in South Asia, and more so for the country’s influence in Afghan politics, where the US is fighting the longest war of its history. The Trump administration in its Pakistan policy, announced in August 2017, suspended all security-related assistance to Pakistan on the usual charge that Pakistan had failed to sever ties with the militant groups, leading to the US and NATO’s failure to defeat the Taliban. In a recent turn of events, the US has also disengaged from training Pakistan’s military officers. While the US has reverted to its usual practice of imposing sanctions on Pakistan rather than engaging in dialogue and understanding its position on terrorism, Pakistan has turned for military assistance to other regional players, now all set to replace the US influence in Asia.
Perhaps the US is not ready to accept that the world has changed. Russia and China are now undeniable powers to reckon with. If not for Russia, the Syrian turmoil triggered because of US-supported terrorists would have thrown the region into the chaos of regime change. With the Road and Belt initiative hinging for its success on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China will ensure that Pakistan’s security is not compromised due to US disenchantment. Interestingly, however, it is not only Pakistan that has to bear the heat of broken ties with the US. The Trump administration is at loggerheads with almost all its allies, causing faith in the American leadership to plummet. In this backdrop, what options does Pakistan have? Is it a moment of crisis or a moment of self-healing? Should Pakistan indulge in self-pity or move on taking advantage of Asia’s rising star?
Pakistan cannot afford any antagonism with the US and neither can any other country in the region. Even though Pakistan has built a military relationship with Russia, the expectation to secure weapons and arms from it is unrealistic. There are many reasons for this. One is Russia’s economy. Since the Crimea annexation and Russia’s alleged meddling in the US elections, Russia has been in the cross-hairs of sanctions and economic embargos from the US and its western allies, because of which Russian markets tumbled 11 percent on April 6, 2018, alone. The second reason is Pakistan’s economy, which is heavily dependent on foreign borrowing to meet its fast deteriorating current account. Pakistan cannot afford to buy weapons and arms in cash and Russia cannot afford to sell arms and weapons to Pakistan on credit. The third reason is India, which buys 60 percent of its military weapons and spare parts from Russia. Russia will only come as close to Pakistan as would not disturb Russia’s relations with India.
One area where both the countries will keep having a continuous interaction is terrorism. Many agreements have been signed between the two to jointly combat the threat of Islamic State (IS).
As far as China is concerned it would certainly cushion the Pakistan military, but not at the cost of irritating India, whose assistance China needs to balance the US influence in the South China Sea. Iran and Turkey would weigh all options before committing themselves to Pakistan against the US.
In this scenario, Pakistan has only one option: to strengthen its economic position. It is increasingly important that Pakistan comes out of its debt trap and improves its financial indicators. For this to be achieved there are a number of issues that need immediate attention. One, of course, is to get rid of corruption. Second, which is even more important, is to allow the civilian governments to complete their tenures without forcing them to face the prospect of extra-constitutional interventions.
Pakistan is on the trajectory of improvement and progress with the new government in the saddle. Our military has done a good job in almost eliminating terrorism and now is the time for the civilian governments to prove their worth by introducing institutional reforms and strengthening democracy. The time perhaps has come to shift the paradigm from security to the economy.
Let us move on from a state of self-pity to the stage of self-healing, translating into a Pakistan standing proud in the comity of nations. A fiscally strong Pakistan will be more intimidating than a Pakistan with the ability to tear down half of Asia in a few military strikes.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore.