THE cold war between US and China has ignited. From incubation to combustion, transition has been dramatic. The gloves are out. Hardly, a day passes when no barb, accusation and action is exchanged in a tit-for-tat manner. Latest incendiary attack was of US when it closed down a Chinese consulate at Houston, citing superficial reasons. China took less than a day to shut down its Consulate at Chendgu as a quid pro quo. Beside toxic gestures/actions, both countries are also marshalling their energy in every way possible to ditch each other at every step of the way. The Asia is the heartland where both would slug it out to gain ascendancy. To be precise, South East Asia and South West Asia are main battlefields.
Both have potential to enable China to fan out in world economically and politically. Being a superpower, US seems hell bent to thwart its outward move. The respective flash points are South China Sea and road component of CPEC. Arguably, on South China Sea, US may grant China some space. Possibly, this could be inferred from a recent policy address by US Secretary of States, Pompeo “the Quad will prove very important in the efforts ahead, ensuring that China retains only its proper place in the world”. On CPEC, it is unlikely to concede anything until inevitable, being anew and shorter route for China to reach Gulf where US has its two vital interests; Oil and Israel. Without meaning to prejudice importance of anyone, Israel is unexceptionable for the US. This makes it a prong which would head their strategic calculations. Due to its key importance for Pakistan/space reasons, this discourse would be confined to this dimension only.
Previous cold war ended with triumph of US and disintegration of the Soviet Union in mountains of Afghanistan. Pakistan was the frontline state and played key role to achieve the end. In forthcoming one, again it is at the centre stage. Though in fight of two big elephants, grass suffers however, because of its geography, it is inescapable for Pakistan. A challenge also brings an opportunity. Similarly, emerging scenario albeit loaded with explosive possibilities, could also spring an array of huge opportunities, provided we tread the path astutely with full realization of own importance and a dictum of foreign affairs; only national interests are eternal. We hold the key. This is the importance, we carry. We need to take cognizance of this and cash it most appropriately. Probably, it was only General Zia ul Haq who extracted maximum price from US for Afghan Jihad albeit as part of mutually exclusive pursuits. It included closure of its eyes from our nuclear pursuits, provision of state of the art military weapons/equipment, downgrading of its relationship with India and Pakistan would only deal with Afghan Mujahedeen. This was as of taking full pound of flesh. US had to accede because of its high stakes involved in the conflict.
In previous cold war, Pakistan was to deny Soviet Union an access to Arabian Sea. Now it is providing China the same thus, content remains as of same greater importance to now competing powers. Given conditions, provision of an access to China would not be an easy proposition. It is associated with a number of uncertainties and risks. On good reasons, it could be said that still Pakistan is main plank of US policy in South West Asia. India has no match with Pakistan. Now after its humiliating defeat at Ladakh, it has become even more irrelevant in the context of CPEC. At first, US would try to dissuade Pakistan from operation of CPEC with mix of incentives, waivers, grants and investment. In case, Pakistan does not show amenability, it would apply stick. This may include IMF/other world financial institutions, international watchdogs/media, threats of terrorism and insurgency in Balochistan particularly, against CPEC, domestic polarization and escalation on LoC/working boundary/troops mobilization on border by India. If all this fails, it may even go for exerting pressure on Pakistan through Arab countries where a large number of Pakistani people work. Some of these countries may do so because of their huge dependence on the US. Besides, relationship of Pakistan with Arab world is another dimension to be taken into account for formulating our policy. In the Gulf, there is no Chinese military presence.
It is all of US. This leaves shipping a risky undertaking beyond Gwadar. China is likely to conclude a multipurpose deal of worth $400 Billion with Iran. In Gulf, this would add high octane fuel to fire because of vital interests of US, highlighted earlier. Supposedly, if US is edged out from Gulf and eventually, from world as a big superpower, apart from China, there could be more contestants for greater role including Turkey. It has already started flexing its muscles. Beyond 2023, it may have a different standing in the region. The world has seldom adhered to ideal of peaceful coexistence/collective wellbeing which constitutes central theme of BRI. In human history, randomly, there were only 268 years when there was no war. Before embarking upon trade through Arabian Sea, China has jobs to do to help Pakistan in insulating itself against implications of above and secure shipping lanes on Sea. For Pakistan, above needs to be considered seriously to ensure interests of the country first and last before opening trade through CPEC.
— The writer, a retired Lt Col, is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.