Islamabad's tightrope walking

Islamabad's tightrope walking

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Pakistan's balancing strategy is in a quagmire due to the increasing strategic competition between China and the United States. As a result, it is walking on a tightrope while sustaining its strategic partnership with Beijing and keeping its connectivity with Washington on a positive trajectory. Indeed, in this transforming global geopolitics and increasing domestic economic vulnerabilities, Islamabad needs to act diplomatically, intelligently, and strategically very calculated.

President Dr. Arif Alvi opined on November 17, that the great powers should shun destructive security paradigms and work for an international order based on rules, morality and ethics. Besides, he expressed Islamabad’s desire to strike a chord of friendship and cooperation with New Delhi. However, the trends in the global and South Asian strategic environment are not conducive to a peaceful world order.  

The great powers and regional strategic competitors' defense policies reveal that they have been advancing their military arsenals instead of diverting resources towards socio-economic development, which is imperative for creating a better world. They are increasing their warfighting capabilities, including the modernization of lethal nuclear weapons, instead of sincerely addressing the global economic recession and pandemic crises. Indeed, this trend in international politics is not ignorable by the politically embattled Pakistani ruling elite struggling to alleviate its fast-deteriorating economy.

Last month, the Biden Administration declassified four important policy documents containing its strategic vision to guard the United States' national interest and preserve its primacy in transforming global politics. The critical examination of these documents reveals that the People's Republic of China (PRC) is the United States' most consequential strategic competitor for the coming decades. Accordingly, India is a natural defense partner to contain China and ensure free and open access to the Indian Ocean region.

The trends in the global and South Asian strategic environment are not conducive to a peaceful world order.

Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal

The increasing strategic competition between the PRC and the US, and the active involvement of India as a strategic partner of the latter in the Indian Ocean Region directly influences the strategic environment of Pakistan. It hardened Islamabad's balancing strategy with the Great Powers and ensured its sovereign existence in South Asia.  

Once again, the ongoing protracted asymmetrical warfare in Ukraine drew strategic analysts' attention toward the European strategic environment. They have been alarmed about the Kremlin's assertive military posture and manoeuvres in the European neighborhood. Besides, President Putin's threatening nuclear rhetoric has increased the fear of nuclear exchanges between Russia and NATO on the European continent. These developments entailed conclusions that the new cold war arena would be Euro-Atlantic.

However, the Biden administration's strategic vision quashed the perceptions about the shift in US foreign and strategic policy. Instead, it reiterated the American strategic enclave's three decades of strategic competitor prophecy, articulated excellently by Huntington's 'Clash of Civilizations' thesis. Hence, Asia, particularly the Indian Ocean, remains the 21st century's strategic riddle, consequently curbing Pakistan's desire to stay out of the alliance politics at the regional strategic chessboard.

The Biden-Xi meeting on November 14 in Bali, Indonesia, germinated a meek optimism that Washington and Beijing's strategic competition will not descend Asia-Pacific into the scourge of war. However, both sides' mega investments in the armed forces modernization and divergent global and regional strategic outlook alarm that their unrestrained competition could veer into conflict. For instance, during the recent China's 20th Party Congress proceedings, President Xi, while painting the darkest picture of China’s external threats, promised to increase further the quantity and quality of the country's defense production. As a result, the probability exists that he could move to retake Taiwan during his third term, provoking a full-fledged war between China and the United States.

The Bali meeting underscored that the United States and China could manage the competition responsibly while maintaining open lines of communication. Besides, they could work together to mitigate the effects of transnational challenges—such as climate change and global macroeconomic stability, including debt relief, health security, and global food security. Moreover, Beijing and Washington seem to prefer detente instead of war. Hence, optimism about preventing a new cold war between China and the United States is germinating.

The Chinese and the American ruling elite's realization that unbridled tension spoiled their political and economic advantages created a space for Islamabad’s balancing approach to its external relations. Therefore, it is appropriate that Pakistan pursues an austere bilateralism methodology in its engagement with China and the United States.

- Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an Islamabad-based analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @zafar_jaspal

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