Is the Pakistan-China partnership as relevant as ever in a multipolar world?

Is the Pakistan-China partnership as relevant as ever in a multipolar world?

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Beset with multiple problems at home, Pakistan seems to have lost its strategic relevance to ongoing regional and global developments. Political uncertainty, economic decline and the rise of terrorism have effectively eroded Pakistan’s capacity to act wholesomely to external developments. Yet, this country of over 220 million people, situated in a strategically important region, matters to friends and foes alike.

The Pakistan-China friendship and strategic cooperative partnership is long standing and time tested. Stabilizing Afghanistan and keeping India tied to a regional equation were some of the core components of this partnership. Afghanistan remains unstable and the Taliban regime has adopted a course that is alien to regional peace. India has graduated to a new level of external engagements in the global plane.

The global order is no longer predicated on unipolarity. China has risen and is engaging the US and Europe on an equal basis. India is angling for a seat at the main table in a multipolar world. Japan, Australia as well as traditional European powers are balancing their relations with US and China on the basis of economic cooperation and strategic competition. Russia is embroiled in a misadventure in Ukraine.

In effect, a duopoly of power exists between the US and China with others trying to find relevance in this broader strategic picture. The rise of India is predicted but not fully assured. India is likely to overtake China in terms of demographics within this year. A vast majority of Indians still labor at a mere subsistence level.

The Chinese economy has been hit by Covid-19 and may recover in a couple of years, though it is projected that with an ageing population, it may not be able to continue its miraculous growth pattern. On the security front, Germany and Japan have shed their reluctance to rearmament. The defining features shaping the world are US-China competition and the Ukraine war.

The Pakistan-China partnership will continue to be affected by these developments unless China agrees to invest more in Pakistan’s economic future.

Salman Bashir

In Pakistan’s immediate neighborhood, the US-India strategic partnership has given a boost to India’s credentials as an emerging global power. The Indo-Pacific framework, which is essentially an anti-China front is taking shape. The Quad, AUKUS and other formats of cooperation are directed at restraining China. India is engaged in these formats. The vision of peaceful regional economic cooperation in South and Central Asia has been interrupted by the developments in Afghanistan.

The internal developments in Pakistan are being shaped to a certain extent by these broader changes. The question is whether Pakistan and China will be able to maintain their strategic relevance in these circumstances. Pakistan is hugely dependent on the west for its economic survival, and economy takes precedence in dire circumstances.

The fact is that Pakistan depends on remittance of dollars by expatriates in western countries. The US has a major say in international financial institutions and major markets for Pakistani exports are in the US and Europe. These facts are having an impact on Pakistan’s foreign policy orientation. It is one thing to pay lip service to the Pakistan-China partnership but the reality of duopoly and the imperatives of US-China strategic competition will take a toll on Pakistan's relevance to China in the foreseeable future.

The Pakistan-China partnership will continue to be affected by these developments unless China agrees to invest more in Pakistan’s economic future. Both countries have based their position on the principle that irrespective of changes in the internal situation and in the world, their cooperation will go forward. The time has now come to test this assumption.

Merely keeping funds in Pakistan’s State Bank or the roll-over of these funds does not solve the insolvency issues that Pakistan is confronted with today. At stake is the very survival of the country as an economically independent state.

— Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as High Commissioner of Pakistan to India.

Twitter: @Salman_B_PK

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