US-China rivalry and its impact on Pakistan 

US-China rivalry and its impact on Pakistan 

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The present rivalry between the United States and China has serious global, regional and national ramifications. For Pakistan, the impact is even greater. 

It is evident that US President Donald Trump has made it a part of his election manifesto to build maximum pressure on Beijing to alter its economic and trade policies. Simultaneously, he is also targeting Beijing’s expanding strategic interests worldwide, giving a clear impression that his administration would place maximum hurdles to impede China’s rise that seems determined to challenge the lone super power in the world. By pursuing this aggressive course, Trump expects to benefit in the coming presidential elections as well. 

In pursuit of this policy, India is Washington’s close strategic partner in this region. By fully supporting India in the form of strengthening its defense capabilities and economy, the US expects to be in a better position to challenge China at the regional level and hinder its rapid rise. In the recent China-India clash of troops in Ladakh, the US fully backed India’s territorial claim. India is maximizing this relationship to its advantage by seeking cutting edge technologies and weapon systems from the US, Israel and France. Undeniably, India is a lucrative market for the defense industries of Western powers, an important factor in the context of their relationship. 

There is, however, a caveat here. Whereas India would like to fully exploit the US-China rivalry to its advantage, it would continue to maintain close economic and trade ties with Beijing as well. According to the available data, India’s two-way commerce with China during 2018-19 was close to US$87 billion. This figure may even increase during this year. 

The lack of mutual confidence between Pakistan and the US—and the latter’s alignment with India—has been a major factor why Pakistan has leaned so heavily on China. By contrast, Beijing’s steadfast support since the 1960s and a strong convergence of economic and strategic interests have led Pakistan to ally more closely with it. 

Talat Masood

It is unlikely that this pattern of enhanced engagement would alter in the near future. Moreover, this stance also allows New Delhi a certain flexibility and semblance of a rising regional power that is not subservient to the US. It is not surprising that the restraint shown by both sides in the recent flare-up in Ladakh, apart from other considerations, was largely due to the mutual economic interests. 

Meanwhile, close ties with Beijing and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects are considered quite significant across the political divide in this country. 

There is also a broad consensus among Pakistan’s major political parties and the military leadership to maintain a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with the United States. 

In fields of higher education, health and technology, the US is considered the most attractive destination for Pakistani students, doctors and engineers. It is the most sought after market for our textile products, and other export items. There is also a significant Pakistani expatriate community with strong links that acts as a useful bridge between the two countries. Trump’s present policy of tightening the visa regime and the spread of the novel coronavirus has adversely affected this interaction. 

For the US, Pakistan’s role in the Afghan peace process is crucial. This aspect is quite evident from the role Pakistan’s military leadership has played in bringing the two warring sides—the Taliban and the Afghan leadership—to the negotiating table. Interestingly, both the US and China want peace in Afghanistan even if their objectives are different. A relatively peaceful Afghan neighborhood would have a salutary effect on neighboring Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Besides, it would open new avenues for trade and commerce with Central Asian states. For the US, a peace agreement would facilitate withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan before November, giving Trump a boost in his election campaign. 

Pakistan’s adversarial relations with India should be of concern to the US for they distract its new strategic ally in the region from focusing on China by dividing its attention on multiple fronts. 

According to a leaked US secret report, stationing a few thousand troops in Afghanistan would serve as a suitable military base to keep an eye on Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. This indicates suspicious motives and constitutes an area where Pakistan is justified in being wary of Washington’s policy and intent toward it. What is most intriguing is the fact that Pakistan’s nuclear capability is of concern to the US even when it is specifically meant to counter India’s conventional and nuclear capability and has no other motive. 

It is these clandestine motives or policies that have been a major obstacle in developing a sound relationship and trust between Washington and Islamabad. Even more surprising is this leak since it came at a time when the Pakistan military was playing a pivotal role in the Afghan peace process. 

Frequent suspension of military and civilian assistance and embargoes on sales of weapon systems and restrictions on transfer of technology by the United States has been a source of friction in the checkered history of the two countries. 

Pakistan’s support of militant groups to counter Indian oppression in Kashmir has also been a major irritant and led to frequent sanctions by the US and its allies. 

The lack of mutual confidence between Pakistan and the US—and the latter’s alignment with India—has been a major factor why Pakistan has leaned so heavily on China. By contrast, Beijing’s steadfast support since the 1960s and a strong convergence of economic and strategic interests have led Pakistan to ally more closely with it. 

*Talat Masood is a retired Lieutenant General from Pakistan Army and an eminent scholar on national security and political issues.
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