One of the most important tasks facing Pakistan’s policy makers is the management of Pakistan-US relations in the nation’s best interests, keeping in view the evolving security environment at global and regional levels. This is hardly surprising considering the fact that the US by any standard remains the most powerful economic and military power in the world. But we also need to take into account the rapid transformation of international security environment primarily because of the phenomenal growth of China’s economic power followed by the build-up of its military strength. As China gains in economic and military strength, it is likely to flex its muscles at regional and global levels and pose a challenge to US global supremacy. The growing Sino-US rivalry, therefore, would not only lead to increasing tensions between the two countries but also create its ripple effects at global and regional levels.
As part of its policy to contain China, the US has taken a major policy decision to strengthen its alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia. The process of strengthening the US strategic partnership with India, which started during the presidency of Clinton and has continued apace since then under Presidents Bush, Obama, and now Trump, is another important dimension of the same policy. The rapid growth of China’s strength and its ability to project its power not only along its periphery but also in far flung areas across the globe in due course would push the US to deepen its strategic cooperation with India to check the expansion of China’s influence, particularly in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. As Indo-US strategic cooperation gathers momentum, Pakistan because of the enduring threat to its security posed by India would try to safeguard its national security and economic well-being through growing cooperation with China. Thus, the coming years would witness growing distance between Pakistan and the US in contrast with the prospect of increasing amity and strategic cooperation between the US and India.
Our policy makers would be well advised to take note of this over-arching and long-term trend of steady growth in strategic cooperation between the US and India, which carries far reaching implications for Pakistan’s security and economic well-being, and the future prospects of Pakistan-US relations. We must face this reality head-on and draw necessary policy conclusions for safeguarding our national security and ensuring economic progress. This development above all calls for the reduction of our economic and military dependence on the US since such dependence can be exploited by Washington as a pressure point on us to comply with its dictates even at the cost of our own vital national interests. This in turn would require us to diversify our external security and economic links. While the strengthening of our strategic partnership and economic relations with China should continue to be the linchpin of this process of diversification, we should simultaneously develop our friendly relations and mutually beneficial cooperation with Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the Persian Gulf region and Central Asia. EU countries should also receive the due attention of our policy makers.
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which involves huge Chinese investment exceeding $60 billion in different economic sectors in Pakistan, is an important offshoot of the One Belt, One Road initiative which China has taken to expand its cooperation with and presence in Eurasian countries. Besides providing the much-needed foreign investment for the development of Pakistan’s economy, it would also have the effect of strengthening economic and strategic cooperation between China and Pakistan. CPEC would provide to western China a much shorter route than those available now for its two-way foreign trade, especially that with the Persian Gulf and the East African countries. It would also offer China an alternative to the existing maritime route through the Strait of Malacca on which the US navy currently has a stranglehold. For Pakistan, the strategic advantages of CPEC and growing cooperation with China in facing the mounting Indian threat to its security are too obvious to need elaboration.
In view of the foregoing, CPEC is unlikely to find favour with India or the US. India has expressed its opposition to CPEC in the strongest possible terms. High level statements from Washington, including the recent one from the US Defence Secretary, have conveyed American misgivings about the project. It wouldn’t be surprising if both India and the US take steps to sabotage the implementation of the projects under CPEC through various overt and covert means at their disposal. Further, the possibility of covert moves by them to undermine political stability in Pakistan cannot be totally ruled out. A look at the current political scene in the country shows that it may already be happening.
The prospect of growing distance between Pakistan and the US in the coming years should not, however, lead us to the blunder of underestimating the importance of maintaining friendly relations and, wherever possible, strengthening mutually beneficial cooperation with the latter. The US will remain the most powerful country in the world for a long time to come with the capacity to hurt us or to be of use to us as we navigate the ship of the state in the choppy waters ahead of us. So while entertaining realistic expectations of our relationship with the US and safeguarding our vital national interests, we should try to expand bilateral cooperation and areas of convergence of the national interests of the two countries, and minimize their divergence wherever possible.
Eradication of terrorism and restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan offer both Pakistan and the US the possibilities of expanding areas of cooperation to their mutual benefit. Unfortunately, despite the supreme sacrifices of our military personnel and civilians in the fight against terrorism, our anti-terrorism policy suffers from ambiguities as the recent BRICS Declaration issued from Beijing clearly demonstrates. There is a wide gulf of mistrust between Pakistan and the US on the issue of terrorism. Our leadership, especially the security establishment, must take stock of the situation on a realistic basis and take necessary steps to remove the suspicions of many leading members of the international community regarding our alleged links with militant organizations accused of involvement in terrorism. An unclear and ambiguous policy on this issue would merely hurt us badly in the long run as it has done in the past because of our deeply flawed Kashmir and Afghanistan policies of 1990’s.
Pakistan and the US must also have a candid and frank exchange of views to harmonize their political and security policies in pursuance of their shared goals of the restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan, and the avoidance of chaos in that hapless land to prevent international terroristic organizations from taking root there and posing a threat to the security of other countries. National reconciliation and a political settlement among the warring parties in Afghanistan are indispensable conditions for the realization of these objectives. This would not be an easy task but it is worth focusing on by both Islamabad and Washington.
The recent visit of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Islamabad provided the two countries with a valuable opportunity to engage in a frank dialogue to identify and expand areas of mutually beneficial cooperation in political, security, economic, commercial, and technical fields. It should also have been an occasion to remove the misunderstandings on issues of terrorism and Afghanistan which had marred this valuable relationship in the past.