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Pakistan: Don’t Ask Us to Choose Between the US and China

Pakistan has enough problems — including escalating attacks by Taliban insurgents and a spiraling economic crisis — without the added headache of a new Cold War between China and the U.S.

In an interview with POLITICO, Pakistan’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar insisted Islamabad had no appetite to pick a side in the growing global rivalry between Washington and Beijing.

As a nuclear-armed heavyweight of 250 million people, Pakistan is one of the most closely watched front-line states in the contest for strategic influence in Asia. While Pakistan’s old Cold War partner Washington is increasingly turning its focus to cooperation with Islamabad’s arch-foe India, China has swooped in to extend its sway in Pakistan — particularly through giant infrastructure projects.

Khar insisted, however, that Islamabad was worried about the repercussions of an all-out rupture between the U.S. and China, which would present Pakistan with an unpalatably binary strategic choice. “We are highly threatened by this notion of splitting the world into two blocs,” Khar said on a visit to Brussels. “We are very concerned about this decoupling … Anything that splits the world further.”

She added: “We have a history of being in a close, collaborative mode with the U.S. We have no intention of leaving that. Pakistan also has the reality of being in a close, collaborative mode with China, and until China suddenly came to everyone’s threat perception, that was always the case.”

It’s clear why Pakistan still sees advantages to walking the strategic tightrope between the U.S. and China. Although U.S. officials have expressed frustration over Pakistan’s historic ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan — and have rowed back on military aid — Washington is still a significant military partner. Last year, the U.S. State Department approved the potential sale of $450 million worth of equipment to maintain Pakistan’s F-16 fighter jets.

Simultaneously, Beijing is pledging to deepen military cooperation with Pakistan — partly to outflank the common enemy in India — and is delivering frigates to the Pakistani navy. China is also building roads, railways, hospitals and energy networks in its western neighbor. While these Chinese investments have boosted the country’s economic development, there are also downsides to going all in with China, with Beijing’s critics arguing that Pakistan has become overly indebted and financially dependent on China.

Khar grabbed headlines in April when a leaked memo appeared in the Wall Street Journal in which she was cited as warning that Pakistan’s instinct to preserve its partnership with the U.S. would harm what she deemed the country’s “real strategic” partnership with China.  

She declined to comment on that leak, but took a more bullish line on continued American power in her interview in Brussels, saying the U.S. was unnecessarily fearful and defensive about being toppled from its plinth of global leadership, which she argued remained vital in areas such as healthcare, technology, trade and combating climate change.

“I don’t think the leadership role is being contested, until they start making other people question it by being reactive,” she said. “I believe that the West underestimates the value of its ideals, soft power,” she added, stressing Washington’s role as the world’s standard setter. China’s biggest selling point for Pakistan, she explained, was an economic model for lifting a huge population out of poverty.

Leverage — and the lack of it — in Kabul

Khar’s sharpest criticism of U.S. policy centered on Afghanistan, where she said restrictions intended to hobble the Taliban were backfiring, causing a humanitarian and security crisis, pushing many Afghans to “criminal activities, narcotics strategy and smuggling.”

A weakened Afghanistan is causing increased security problems for Pakistan, and the Taliban in Kabul are widely seen as supporting an expanding terror campaign waged by the Pakistani Taliban. Ironically, given the long history of Pakistan’s engagement with the Afghan Taliban, Islamabad is finding it difficult to exercise its influence and secure Kabul’s help in reining in the latest insurgency wave.

The Taliban in Kabul are widely seen as supporting an expanding terror campaign waged by the Pakistani Taliban | Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

When the Afghan Taliban seized power in Kabul in 2021, Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Imran Khan celebrated their victory against “[American] slavery” and spy chief Faiz Hameed made a visit to Kabul and cheerily predicted “everything will be O.K.” Khar, who took office last year, said Khan had reacted “rather immaturely” and argued her government always knew “the leverage was over-projected.”

While the violence has put Pakistan’s soldiers and police on the front line of the fight against the Taliban at home, Khar said Islamabad was taking a highly diplomatic approach in seeking to win round the Taliban in Afghanistan, pursuing political engagement and focusing on economic development — rather than strong-arm tactics.   

“Threatening anyone normally gets you worse results than the ones you started with. Even when it is exceptionally difficult to engage at a point when you think your red lines have not been taken seriously, we will still try the route of engagement.”

She firmly rejected the idea that any other country — either the U.S. or China — could play a role in helping Pakistan defeat the Taliban with military deployments. “When it comes to boots on the ground, we would welcome no one,” she said.  

Pakistan is seeking bailout cash from the International Monetary Fund as the economy is hammered by blazing inflation and collapsing reserves. When asked whether she reckoned Washington was holding back on supporting Pakistan, partly to test whether China would step up and play a bigger role in ensuring the country’s stability, Khar replied: “I would be very unhappy if that were the case.”

No to navies

When it came to Europe’s role in the Indo-Pacific region, she was wary of the naval dimensions of EU plans, an element favored by France. She was particularly hostile to any vision of an Indo-Pacific strategy that was dedicated to trying to contain Chinese power in tandem with working with India.

One of the leading fears of the U.S. has long been that China could use its investments in the port of Gwadar to build a naval foothold there, a move that would inflame tensions with India, and allow Beijing to project greater power in the Indian Ocean.

Khar said Europe should tread carefully in calibrating its plan for the region.

“I would be very concerned if it is exclusively or predominantly a military-based strategy, which will then confirm it is a containment strategy, it must not be a containment strategy,” she said of the EU’s Indo-Pacific agenda.

“[If it’s] a containment strategy of a certain country, which then courts a certain country that is a very belligerent neighbor to Pakistan, then instead of stabilizing the region, it is endangering the region.”  

Source : Politico