Pakistan is a country which is not well understood in the west. In the United Kingdom, its former colonial overlord when it was part of the British Raj, the country is largely perceived through racial, xenophobic and orientalist stereotypes, despite possessing the largest overseas diaspora from the country in the world. In reality, Pakistan is a multi-ethnic Republic which holds itself together through an appeal to a common Islamic identity, of which fundamentally distinguished it from the Hindu majority India of which it was once part of, and partitioned from by London alike. The longstanding conflict with New Delhi is what has defined the majority of the country’s turbulent history, which has of course been rocked with political and ethnic instability.
This week, it appears Pakistan faces another crisis. The government of Imran Khan, a famous former Cricketer, faces a revolt from the opposition parties who are pushing a vote of no-confidence against him, accusing him of mismanaging the country’s economic situation. As of March 29th, those advocating the vote are reportedly 9 short of the 172 tally to succeed. Khan however protests that “foreign forces” are behind the attempt to remove him from power, citing objections to his foreign policy outlook which has sought to both align with China and Russia, and moved away from cooperation with the United States following the end of its conflict in Afghanistan. He claims in turn there is a “secret letter” proving it addressed from the US embassy, of which he cannot publish as it is a “national secret”.
To any onlooker such a claim appears to be a fanciful and convenient excuse. The situation of course is much more complex. Pakistan’s politics has been prone to such frequent upheavals for the fact it strives to reconcile many different ethnic identities under one coalition of Islamic identity. This includes Pashtuns, Punjabis and Balochi peoples, creating political pulls against the state in the form of separatist movements and other forms of unrest. This underlying instability has led Pakistan’s military to become the principal “backbone” in the holding the state together and its most powerful political institution, which has often cycled between seizing power and restoring coups. If the government of Imran Khan collapses, such a takeover again is not an impossibility.
However, on the other hand, the claims of foreign forces interfering in the country are not as absurd as they may appear, even if somewhat simplified. Pakistan matters more strategically than the western public realize. First of all, Islamabad is not a weak country. It has a huge population, a formidable military and nuclear weapons. Second of all, its geographic entails a strategic land bridge stretching from China’s Xinjiang province down into the western Indian Ocean. This is made it the centrepiece of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) via the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” (CPEC) which gives China a route to bypassing the Indian subcontinent and an access point to procure energy from the Arabian Peninsula without going through the treacherous contested waters of the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea, where the US military and its allies are consolidating their naval presence.
In conjunction with this, Pakistan has shown strong support of China as a critical strategic partner. Imran Khan has helped refute allegations against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, he attended the Winter Olympics in Beijing, snubbed America’s “democracy summit” at the end of 2021 and visited Moscow on the day the war against Ukraine began.
The collapse of America’s relationship of mutual interest with Islamabad as a partner as Afghanistan came to an end ultimately overseen its pivot towards other non-western strategic partners, with China being its primary benefactor in helping Pakistan receive economic and military support in hedging against India itself. Last year, the US subsequently added a number of Pakistani firms onto its own Commerce Department “entity list” due to their links with China, prohibiting them from buying US origin parts.
Given this, the importance of Pakistan should not be underestimated. It is very much in the American interest to foster a change of government in this country in the view to advancing its containment of China, playing to the country’s instabilities and instead hoping for a more pro-India and pro-western government which nullifies its growing strategic dependency on Beijing. However, whether such an outcome is actually likely remains to be seen, especially given the military will continue to play as kingmaker. Whilst critics have accused China of fostering a “debt trap” over Islamabad, in practice China has given the country economic opportunities it otherwise has never had throughout its entire history. The vote itself is scheduled for March 31st, but only time will tell if Imran Khan survives in what is irrespectively set to be an inflection point on Pakistan’s strategic future.