Some interesting developments have taken place in the context of Pakistan’s external relations in recent weeks – especially in the context of its relations with the U.S.
The meeting between the U.S. President Donald Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos, on January 21, 2020, drew a lot of media attention – this was not unexpected. While speaking to the press, before his meeting with Khan, the U.S. President Donald Trump offered his support for resolving the Kashmir issue (this is the fourth occasion on which Trump has made such an offer). Trump’s remarks were not taken kindly by India, which reiterated its stand that there was no question of any third party mediation between India and Pakistan on Kashmir.
Upswing in US-Pakistan ties
While Trump’s remarks are unlikely to be taken seriously by anyone, including Pakistan, what is important is the fact that only a few weeks ago, the U.S. had decided to resume a military training program, IMET (International Military and Education Training Program) for Pakistani officials.
This program had been suspended in August 2018 by the Trump Administration but was officially resumed in January 2020. While an announcement with regard to the resumption of this program had been made by the U.S. State Department in December 2020. On January 3, 2020, a senior official in the State Department tweeted that the US President had given his approval for the resumption of IMET. This announcement was made not long after a telephonic conversation between Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State and Pakistani Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa. Pompeo had made the call to inform Bajwa about the U.S. military strike in Iraq in which top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was killed, and also to discuss the ramifications of this development on the security situation of the Middle East. The U.S. decision to resume IMET has been looked at from a transactional prism, and many believe the initiative was taken with the intent of drawing Pakistan’s support in the Middle East.
Key takeaways from recent high level visits
Two high level visits – Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s visit to the U.S., as well as that of Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells to Pakistan – were also crucial. During his visit to the U.S., apart from discussions on crucial strategic issues (such as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and developments in the Middle East), Qureshi also sought assistance from the U.S. for the removal from the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force FATF. The U.S. Secretary of State praised Pakistan for its efforts in resolving the Afghan conflict, but there was no specific assurance with regard to removal of Pakistan from the grey list of the FATF.
Alice Wells during her visit to Pakistan praised Pakistan’s efforts towards countering terror financing, and also made the point that the bilateral relationship between Washington and Islamabad needed to be reworked, and for this it was important to replace the ‘Aid’ based relationship with ‘Trade’ (Imran Khan has repeatedly spoken about the need for Pakistan to decrease its dependence upon aid). During the course of a briefing regarding her South Asia visit on January 24, 2020, Wells did allude to the fact that Pakistan needs to do more if it wants to be removed from the FATF grey list. She also made the point that if Pakistan did not meet FATF requirements, it would not be able to carry out required economic reforms. During the briefing on January 24, 2020, Wells highlighted some of the key steps being taken for strengthening economic ties – this includes American investments in Pakistan, and more robust trade ties – through trade shows and visits of Pakistani business delegations to the U.S. and vice-versa.
While it is true that Pakistan may not be replaced from the grey list of FATF, as of now. The improvement in Pakistan-U.S. relations is underscored by some of the above developments. Islamabad’s ties with Russia (in both the strategic and economic sphere) have also witnessed an upswing, and for the time being it seems that its geopolitical location has played a role in enhancing its relevance.
Need for Pakistan to balance ties between Beijing and Washington
At the same time, Pakistan also has to walk a tight rope, and while its ties with the U.S. have improved in recent months, there will be dissonance between the two not just on the issue of terrorism, but also with regard to the CPEC project and its long-term economic implications.
While Pakistan needs Washington for a number of reasons, with the most important being the U.S. support for getting of the grey list of the FATF, Islamabad is economically dependent upon Beijing, and also has robust strategic ties.
The importance which Islamabad attaches to Beijing is reiterated by the strong reactions by top Pakistani officials including Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to the recent criticism of the CPEC project by Alice Wells. Khan dubbed the criticism of the project as ‘nonsense’. Days earlier, Wells while speaking at an Islamabad based think-tank had criticized CPEC for lacking transparency and also argued that it could lead to a rise in debt.
It would be pertinent to point out that soon after taking over as PM, many officials had stated that certain key projects within CPEC needed to be renegotiated, since they were poorly negotiated by the earlier government, and Beijing did not take kindly to these remarks. Since then, officials in the Imran Khan administration have been very cautious with regard to issuing public statements on CPEC.
When Wells had criticised the CPEC project in November 2019, while speaking at a top U.S. think tank, Woodrow Wilson Centre, not only did the Chinese Ambassador in Pakistan, Yao Jing react strongly, dismissing American criticisms as mere ‘propaganda’, but so did Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and other senior Pakistani politicians like Pakistani Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mushahid Hussain. Hussain went to the extent of saying that, CPEC apart from strengthening bilateral ties between Beijing and Islamabad has also laid the foundations for an ‘Industrial Revolution’ in Pakistan.
There are sections in Pakistan (including the establishment) which understand that it cannot be economically dependent only upon Beijing, and economic ties with the U.S. as well as military assistance will not harm it in anyway. Due to its strategic compulsions, the Trump Administration has softened vis-à-vis Pakistan to some extent, and has also spoken about strengthening economic ties. As mentioned earlier, Alice Wells highlighted some of the steps being taken in this direction.
At the same time, Islamabad shares far closer strategic ties with Beijing, than it does with Washington. If one were to specifically look at the South Asian geopolitical context, there is far more convergence between the strategic goals of Beijing and Islamabad, as opposed to the strategic priorities of Washington and Islamabad.
The U.S.-Pakistan-China triangle is complex, and Pakistan would certainly not want to miss out on financial support from the U.S., since this would benefit its economy. Islamabad needs to cultivate its economic relationship with Washington, without offending Beijing. While the current geopolitical situation, and U.S. compulsions may have given it a breather for some time, it remains to be seen, how Islamabad will strike a fine balance between Beijing and Washington in the long run. It also remains to be seen as to how New Delhi views the recent developments pertaining to the Washington-Islamabad relationship.