Can Pakistan build bridges between US and China?

Sabena Siddiqui

Published: Updated:

Resetting ties with the US after a rocky year, Pakistan has faced erratic times due to the changed geopolitical realities of this region. It all began in early 2015, when Washington and New Delhi deepened their defense ties and signed a nuclear deal during a visit by Obama.

Shortly afterward in the same year, Sino-Pakistan bilateral ties were upgraded and the joint venture called the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPEC) was announced by President Xi while on a visit to Pakistan.

Later on in August 2016, US-India bilateral ties were further elevated to a strategic alliance and a nuclear pact and logistics deal was signed. Starting from the point that the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) was signed, a further series of regional re-alignments ensued with Pakistan becoming part of a China-Russia equation.

ALSO READ: China’s geo-economic interests and Middle East energy industry

Switching allies, trade pacts were finalized and bilateral Pak-Russian military exercises were held in Russia as well as under the umbrella of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO), which extended to represent half the global population. All these member countries except India, also became part of China’s mega-project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and a “great game” began.

Since these events, Pakistan’s ties with the US have stayed fractious though both have remained allies. Not in a position to lose Pakistan while its’s forces stay in Afghanistan, the US continues to need its help for a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban and to help maintain the strategic balance in South Asia.

Consequently, when Mike Pompeo visited Islamabad last week, there were no angry words even though the new government of Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to give in to any demands regarding Afghanistan and fighting militancy there.

Building bridges between the US and China would not only bring US-Pakistan ties on a mutually beneficial trajectory, it could also help reduce divergences between the two major powers

Sabena Siddiqui

New prime minister

Soon after winning the elections, Khan had called for mutually beneficial ties between the two nations instead of any “one-sided” relationship. Building up leverage on the Pakistani side prior to his visit, the remaining $300 million from the curtailed Coalition Support Funds were withdrawn, while Pompeo had also remarked that any IMF bailout for Pakistan should not be used to pay off “Chinese debts.”

Notwithstanding the previous tough statements, Pompeo sounded optimistic and said: “We talked about their new government, the opportunity to reset the relationship between our two countries across a broad spectrum — economic, business, and commercial.”

Accompanied by General Joseph Dunford of US, delegation-level talks were held separately with PM Imran Khan and Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Bajwa. Though both sides reached no agreement, Pompeo left decisions for a later date as he said there were, “a lot more discussions to be had.”

ALSO READ: Is China opening up to the world via Belt Road Initiative?

Contrary to general expectations, both sides spoke about moving forward. Saying that focus is needed on “deliverable outcomes”, Pompeo observed. “And here once again you will see an alignment and convergence between the US and Pakistan.”

Predictably, Pakistan will be doing a lot of re-balancing between China and the US as usual but it would be an ideal situation if both these powers could develop better relations. Over the decades, US-Pakistan ties have maintained continuity though there have been ups and downs.

Being relevant to the US strategic calculus in this part of the world, Islamabad is not dispensable for Washington and remains one of its oldest allies.

Since long, Pakistan has been balancing its ties with both China and the US while both China and the US have also maintained amicable ties with India while their strategic ties continue with Pakistan through the decades. It is certainly a roundabout situation between these four countries.

Strategic chain

Perceiving China-US and Pakistan-India relations as an inter-connected “strategic chain”, a Brookings research states, “While Pakistan responds strategically to India, India responds both to Pakistan and China, which in turn responds both to India and the United States.”

Recommending that a quadripartite solution is required if chain reactions are to be prevented, the report says that the US and China should improve ties as “restraint between China and the US likewise encourages restraint between India and Pakistan.”

ALSO READ: G7 to SCO: Geopolitics changing the unipolar world?

Keeping this domino effect in view, it may be the right time to repeat history. It was Pakistan that had facilitated the US and China in establishing diplomatic ties in 1971, US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger came to Islamabad and stayed at the Nathiagali hill-station from where he was taken to China on a secret trip from July 9-11 for talks and the result was President Nixon’s historic visit to China in February, 1972.

Building bridges between the US and China would not only bring US-Pakistan ties on a mutually beneficial trajectory, it could also help reduce divergences between the two major powers.

Even Imran Khan’s government wants to build more “mutually beneficial” ties with the US, bringing Washington and Beijing closer has the potential to change the entire dimension.
Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist and geopolitical analyst with special focus on the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC and South Asia. She tweets @sabena_siddiqi.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.