Reviews | Pakistani military tries to balance US and China
For years, Chinese and Pakistani leaders have described their relationship, forged by a shared rivalry with neighbor India, as “sweeter than honey”. But the Pakistani military’s view of relations with China appears to be deteriorating – and diverging from that of political leaders.
Last month, after Prime Minister Imran Khan declined the Biden administration’s invitation to his Democracy Summit, Pakistani television news anchor Kamran Khan published a video on social networks denouncing the “bad decision”, the one he said was taken at the request of China. (China was not invited – or was not happy – with the summit.) The journalist lamented that with this decision, the Prime Minister had “put Pakistan openly in China’s lap”. He alleged Beijing’s loans had ‘entrapped’ Islamabad, and he even called for an ‘audit’ of the pros and cons of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which has brought in billions of dollars in energy investment and debt-financed infrastructure in Pakistan.
In Pakistan, press freedom and politics lie in a gray area, with red lines carefully managed by the military. With a simple phone call or WhatsApp message, colonels can bring a transgressive editor or lawmaker to heel.
So the explicit call to reconsider relations with China by one of the most prominent voices in the Pakistani media is no accident. It reflects the consent, if not the orders, of the country’s khaki masters. Indeed, Pakistan’s praetorian army would have preferred, according to a retired US diplomat, for Prime Minister Khan to attend President Biden’s summit – to reinvigorate a relationship with a superpower that has sent chills down its spine.
Generals, of course, have little love for democracy or, for that matter, America. What they have is a keen sense of realism and a firm belief that the military is the guardian of the national interest. (The military has either directly governed or commanded strong indirect political influence for most of Pakistan’s history.)
The leadership of the army must know that it has no permanent friends among the political forces at home or abroad. He constantly seeks strategic maneuverability, balancing domestic and foreign forces in response to changing realities and to avoid dependence on a single boss, proxy, or ally.
The historic relationship between the United States and Pakistan is a perfect example. The September 11 attacks and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan brought Islamabad and Washington closer together. Military-ruled Pakistan had no choice but to agree to a host of US demands, including assistance in overthrowing a Taliban regime it viewed as friendly.
But in the mid-2000s, Pakistan resumed covert support for the Taliban, with the aim of forcing a negotiated US withdrawal. Last year Pakistan got what it wanted. But now, after spending two decades pushing America out of Afghanistan, the Pakistani military seems intent on bringing it back into the region.
Because as US-China competition intensifies, the Pakistani military fears getting stuck in a dead end with Beijing. He therefore seeks to balance the two great powers by seizing areas of cooperation, including counterterrorism and trade, which could save relations with Washington.
The prime minister, on the other hand, seems more driven by personal feelings. He admires the Chinese political system, especially its gains against poverty and its ruthless anti-corruption measures. And he has an anti-American streak, which is why he might be more receptive to Chinese pressure.
The military, however, doesn’t seem to hold such grudges. Its focus is the present and the future, which seem ominous. Pakistan’s economy is collapsing, which could be a recipe for social and political unrest, as well as cuts in military spending.
As China’s tap dries up – given Beijing’s growing aversion to lending to high-risk countries – and Pakistan’s economic woes deepen, much of the army command considers the Mr. Khan’s hypernationalism as counterproductive earthiness, and military leaders increasingly see him as a liability rather than an asset. This helps explain the overtures to Washington, which not only include the summit’s messages on democracy, but also the granting of a US diplomat rare access to the tightly Chinese-controlled and operated port of Gwadar.
But the attempted pivot to America will probably not go far. Goodwill in Washington has dried up, especially given Pakistani intelligence support for the Taliban. And Islamabad’s sins are not the only driver of the US-Pakistani divorce. Washington has embraced India wholeheartedly, seeking to advance its rise as a global power even as that country moves toward Hindu nationalist authoritarianism. Time and again, Washington has allowed an “Indian exception” in its human rights or nuclear proliferation policies, emboldening New Delhi and endangering Islamabad.
While Pakistan has in recent years developed ties with Russia and Turkey, China has become the obvious choice for a meaningful alternative to the United States.
With relations with Washington at a low ebb in 2011, Islamabad looked to Beijing for military hardware it could not get from America, including advanced drones and aircraft. China and Pakistan have accelerated their joint manufacture of a low-cost fighter jet that forms the backbone of Pakistan’s air force. And Pakistan has become the only foreign country with access to the military version of China’s Beidou satellite navigation service.
While Pakistani generals seem upset by the prospects of being trapped on China’s side in a new Cold War, they have also benefited from Beijing’s new muscularity – like when India was forced last year to hijack troops from the front lines with Pakistan to the border with China. .
Fears of a two-pronged war with China and Pakistan have so far limited New Delhi’s stance on Islamabad. But they also tighten the Indian-American embrace. Paradoxically, Pakistan’s partnership with China may be paying off too much.
To counter China, India is overcoming its inhibitions to align itself with the Americans, dilute its “strategic autonomy” and deepen bilateral defense cooperation. This in turn increases Pakistan’s dependence on China, its biggest arms supplier and bilateral creditor. And that compounds fears the Pakistani military has of being strategically locked in.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has learned the hard way that when it comes to trade and lending, its special relationship with China is not so special.
In 2020, Islamabad began trying to renegotiate the expensive electricity contracts it recklessly entered into with Chinese companies. Not only has Beijing refused to do so, but it is insisting that Islamabad repay $1.4 billion in arrears owed to Chinese power producers.
Pakistan has put almost all of its eggs in one basket and is learning the limits of what it means to be an “ally” of China. Its predicament offers lessons for other small countries in navigating a new era of US-China rivalry: Don’t blindly pursue China as an alternative to the United States. In commerce and trade, China’s approach is mercantilist to friend and foe alike.
So, while the Pakistani army seems to want to distance itself, it may already be too late.
Arif Rafik (@arifcrafiq) is President of Vizier Consulting, a political risk consulting firm specializing in the Middle East and South Asia. His research focuses on Sino-Pakistani relations.
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