President Trump’s televised ultimatum to Pakistan to abandon its support for terror is unlikely to yield any fruitful result, rather alienate the Pakistanis further and strengthen China’s hand in the region our Associate Editor Sumera B. Reshi investigates the changing policy.
Pakistan has postponed the visit of a top US diplomat, Alice Wells, whose tour was scheduled in August. Soon after President Trump publicly reprimanded Islamabad for providing safe havens to extremists that kill Americans, the relationship between the US and Pakistan has been on a bitter side. Alice Wells, the acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs and Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was set to be the first major American official to visit the country after the President’s harsh comments, but her visit has now been put off by the Pakistan government until a “mutually convenient time”.
It is clear why the high profile visit was postponed but according to government sources, Islamabad is evolving a response to the US President’s accusation that Pakistan provides safe havens to the agents of chaos and is prolonging the US’ 16-year Afghan war. In an environment of bedlam, it would be ‘premature’ to interact with the senior US department official, added Islamabad.
Previously, Wells has met Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar. ,.
Keeping Trump’s rabble-rousing remarks in view, Khawaja Asif, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister delayed his tour to the US and preferred to visit China and Russia before travelling to the US. Trump’s efforts to coerce Pakistan could push it deeper into China & Russia’s bowl. Nevertheless, China has already offered Pakistan an opportunity to counter the strengthened union between the US and India whose presence in Afghanistan, the Pakistani military considers a big threat. China has invested a huge amount in Pakistan. It has already spent $62 billion on the infrastructure project, the China – Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
“It is unprecedented and very different from what Pakistan-American relations ever were. While the US invested in Pakistan, its dominance will never be like the Chinese”, said Ayesha Sidiqqa.
Also, analysts believe that for Russia, a US – Pakistan rift opens space to oppose American power, as it does through proxies in Syria.
Western officials in Kabul believe, partly for this reason, that Russia has increased its weapons support for the Taliban.
“If I were Putin, I’d be smirking and thinking, this is my chance to get back at the Americans and turn Afghanistan into another Vietnam,” said Siddiqa.
Moreover, Russia has confessed that it has shared intelligence with the Taliban in order to fight ISIS and last year Pakistan’s defense minister urged Russia to take a lead in stabilizing Afghanistan, so owing to this closeness, Russia and Pakistan conducted their first joint military drill near Peshawar.
Hassan Askari Raza, a Pakistani analyst is of the opinion that there are constraints to how much and how far diplomatic turbulence countries in the region are willing to cause.
According to Hasan A. Raza, “For Russia, the first preference in south Asia is obviously India, and therefore Pakistan is not expecting a major shift in relations in the near future,” he said. “There may be a downgrading of relations between them, but Pakistan and the US will not totally abandon each other.”
In the past, Barack Obama also tried to strong-arm Pakistan, by cutting down on the economic assistance and lowering diplomatic contacts. Obama never visited Islamabad in his eight years as president. However, he reached out to Pakistan’s arch-rival, India. Also, Indian Premier, Narendra Modi was welcomed by Trump at the White House on his visit to the US.
Since 9/11, a lot more has changed. The Pakistan of today is not the Pakistan of 2009. It is far more secure, its economy has improved to a greater extent, and the relationship with China is more vigorous and multidimensional. Since the hunt for bin Laden took off, Pakistan has diversified its relations with other countries, reinforcing ties with Qatar, Russia, and Turkey. It has dissuaded itself off the dependence on the US and has added layers of insulation from American pressure. The Pakistan of today has options and it is likely to strengthen its alliance with China in response to the US pressure, so it is unlikely that Pakistan could be compelled to toe a line which is not in its own interest.
“Pakistan, who controls the only two overland military supply routes into Afghanistan, and is a key provider of intelligence on terrorist groups like al-Qaeda to the CIA, would be hard-pressed to cave into US pressure. In fact, the more pressure that Washington exerts, the less likely Islamabad is to comply.”said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asian programme at The Wilson Centre, the US think tank.
Social scientists believe that only suspicion of American motives in Afghanistan can unite the regional powers. Regional powers have long suspected the US of wanting a permanent base in Afghanistan under the guise of fighting terrorists. According to Barnett Rubin, director of the Afghan-Pak regional Program at New York University, regional powers don’t believe in the counter terrorism bona fides of the US.
The surge in troops and hard Pakistan line can succeed if coupled with strong diplomacy. War is not new to Afghanistan. They have lived under the shadow of war since Russia’s and Britain’s 19th-century Great Game, but now more countries seem to expand political and economic wealth to maintain a foothold.
“Unless there is an agreement about Afghanistan between Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan, India and the US, Afghanistan will be unstable,” Rubin said. “And if the idea is that Afghanistan is defended and secured by becoming an American base, there won’t be an agreement.” he further shared.
Trump’s direct threat to Pakistan came when the foreign secretary Tehmina Janjua visited Beijing to discuss the revival of efforts by the so-called Quadrilateral Coordination Group to set up peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The group includes Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the US.
Janjua met with State Councillor Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Wang travelled to Kabul and Islamabad in late June to reduce tensions over the failure of both countries to prevent cross-border terrorist attacks from their respective territory. He brokered an agreement on the resumption of security cooperation, under which counterterrorism operations would be verified by China and the US.
In addition, responding to Trump’s statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying defended Pakistan’s record. “Pakistan is at the forefront of the counterterrorism efforts. For many years, it has made positive efforts and great sacrifices for combating terrorism and made important contributions to upholding world peace and regional stability. We believe the international community should fully recognize the efforts made by Pakistan in fighting terrorism,” she said.
Author of the China – Pakistan Axis & a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, Andrew Small is of the opinion that China would be concerned about the US’ hard stance on Pakistan. Since China is a key ally and a pioneer of CPEC, a $62 billion investment and President XI Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative” to integrate the regional economy, China would look to thwart any efforts to squeeze Pakistan financially or economically and will help Pakistan with the political cover too.
In this context, China would be worried about Trump’s stance of the Afghan war as part of the wider geopolitical rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly during its military standoff with India in Bhutan. Also, Trump’s address may aggravate Beijing’s anxieties about the US objectives in the region. Trump failed to mention China, despite its involvement in the embryonic reconciliation process with the Taliban and promise of investments in Afghanistan. Instead, Trump asked India – which, unlike China, does not border Afghanistan – to increase economic aid to Kabul. Policy makers in Beijing may suspect that the US seeks to position India as a counterweight not only to Pakistan but also to China and its Belt and Road Initiative.
The author is an Associate editor with The Legitimate