International rivalry and Pakistan’s dilemma
The US Senate has passed a China-specific bill with an outlay of $250 Billion to outcompete China.
Soon this rivalry would engulf other far greater dimensions than mere economics because causes of war are same as of competition among individuals; acquisitiveness, pugnacity, pride and desire for food, land, material, fuels and mastery.
For three decades, the US has ruled a unipolar world however, with its astronomical economic rise worldwide, China has started boring holes in its international ascendancy/mastery.
Sensing a real threat,US has started making moves on global chessboard to preempt China.
One move is also on Pakistan which lends China an all-weather and far shorter trade route worldwide than it could get elsewhere in shape of road component of CPEC.
It is of same strategic importance which once US denied to Soviet Union to reach warm waters in era of cold war.
It is naïve to believe that the US would allow China to have this luxury without a fierce contest.
The game is on. It has asked Pakistan to provide military bases though ostensibly, to support CT in Afghanistan when it withdraws from there but in reality, it is to keep watch on CPEC.
CT is no longer its priority one rather it is now China as said by the US itself. Given conditions, this presents Pakistan a difficult dilemma.
On one hand, it is China which is its reliable friend who has earned a reputation of walking in to help Pakistan when others walk out. With CPEC, it could offer Pakistan tremendous opportunities for growth/development.
On the other hand, it is the US whose track record of friendship with Pakistan is seasonal. Though its power is waning yet its grip on the world is quite firm.
Its demands cannot be easily brushed aside when it means business. Albeit, Pakistan has declined its demand for military bases but it does not end here. It would insist to meet it alternatively with a set of carrots in return. If Pakistan does not oblige, it would apply a stick.
This could turn out to be quite harmful for Pakistan if assessed in realism, not through prisms of emotionalism, romanticism and idealism.
Overburdened with huge insupportable foreign debt, disbursement of $6 billion IMF loan is essential for Pakistan and Washington’s support to sustain it crucial because its hold on IMF is decisive.
Similarly, its sway over international watchdogs including FATF is almost equally conclusive.
Since 2018, Pakistan is languishing in the grey-list of FATF and is very keen to exit to evade its continuing negative fallouts. Without the nod of the US, exit may remain elusive.
With the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, anarchy may set in there and its spill over into Pakistan is a foregone conclusion.
The threat of terrorism may increase from there particularly, by India in concert with US and Afghan NDS as has been the case previously.
India may become dearer to the US if Pakistan moves away from the US. This would have implications of its own. The US has a predominant influence on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states where a sizeable number of Pakistani work.
They also intend to invest heavily in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia’s reputation is as of China in hour of need for Pakistan.
Undoubtedly, China is a rising star in the world economically however, it lacks in political influence and military presence at nodal points in the world to make its trade touch its optimum level.
“Trade in the world is by flag” said former PM ZAB. It implies the strength of a country which is primarily a function of its economy, military might and political influence.
In economy, China has sufficient clout but this could be punctured considerably by its deficiency in other two spheres. Let us take an example of shipping beyond Gwadar.
Does China have enough military presence in Arabian Sea/Gulf to ensure uninterrupted and secured flow of cargo traffic? It has none. It is the only US which has. Except Iran, the whole of the ME is in the lap of the US.
This raises a serious question about shipping beyond Gwadar when the balloon is up. Besides, there are other serious questions which crop up in one’s mind.
Does China have leverage to free us from squeezing of IMF/other world financial institutions and international watchdogs on the behest of the US or alternatively, helps us a great deal to overcome its ensuing consequences.
Does China have influence in Afghanistan to prevent instability there and its spill over? There is already talk of regime change in Pakistan if the government does not heed the demands of the US.
Ironically, our ruling elite is ever ready to fall in its palm to serve their parochial interests. Apart from this, the US could also count on its ingress in important pillars of the states.
The change regime could spell disaster for “Change” for which Pakistan suffered most grievously and is no longer in position to pay its price again.
Could China match the US on this account? It is difficult to find answers to above questions in affirmative. In a nutshell, the US can cause pain to us whereas China could give us some achievable gain.
It is wiser to avoid pain than seeking a gain because practically a retrogression is more harmful than what a progression could yield positively.
It is the conventional wisdom and needs to be followed particularly, when the situation is perilous and our situation is far beyond this measure.
After having undergone the worst times, Pakistan has barely taken off and could ill afford interruption/instability of any serious kind.
The situation calls for deep introspection, flexibility, imagination and skilful diplomatic resourcefulness.
Pakistan needs to engage both US and China but first and last rooted in national interests because national interests are permanent alone.
— The writer, a retired Lt Col, is a senior columnist based in Islamabad.