What Has Motivated Islamabad's Recent Diplomatic Overtures Towards Washington?

What Has Motivated Islamabad's Recent Diplomatic Overtures Towards Washington?
Transparency is not the norm in US-Pakistan relations. For instance, we don’t know what made the Pakistani government and military leadership make an attempt to reconnect with the US security establishment in Washington in mid-2022. Both Pakistani civilian leaders and military commanders in their visit to Washington in those months advocated for a reset in relations between the two countries. The previous two years saw the warmth in Pakistan-US relations evaporate like anything. Washington was getting closer to New Delhi. But the debacle of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan truly vitiated the atmospherics of the relations. Pakistan’s ruling elite was euphoric over the Taliban victory in Kabul, whereas August 2021 was a month of mourning for Washington. Then what exactly happened in the middle of 2022 that caused the military and political leaders to approach Washington with a fresh message to reset relations? Nobody could be absolutely sure.

Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto could be seen making an earnest attempt at convincing the intellectual elite of Washington to make an attempt to reconnect. Weeks before his retirement, General Qamar Javed Bajwa also visited Washington for six days, where he held meetings with top US defense officials. Still, the Pakistani leadership could not make any impact on the political elite of Washington. It was only US generals and spymasters who still showed some interest in Washington’s Pakistan policy.

“We have completely shifted to Chinese weapon systems… no major weapon system of US origin acts as a frontline weapon system in our military,” said a Pakistani official.

In the two years immediately preceding the months in mid-2022, Pakistan and China were getting so close militarily that some commentators in the West started to describe this as a quasi-military alliance. Sharpening US-China competition on the international stage, China-India military tensions and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan were the factors that acted in the background to bring Pakistan and China into a military embrace. State of the art Chinese modern weapon systems were inducted into the Pakistani inventory, Chinese military diplomacy with Pakistan was stepped up dramatically, and Chinese and Pakistan militaries engaged in a vast range of collaborative military exercises. This period also saw a sharp rise in Pakistani military interaction with the Russian military. In fact, the Pak-China-Russia military interaction picked up pace so dramatically that to outsiders, this appeared to be a quasi-military alliance. According to western commentators, this period saw an increase in the interoperability between the Chinese and Pakistani militaries and in fact, there were signs that the two militaries might be heading for joint military and strategic planning in the region. The past ten years have witnessed the Pakistan military gradually weaning itself off its dependence on western, and especially American, weapon systems. According to a Pakistani source, the only major American or western weapons system now in the Pakistan military’s inventory is the Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jet, for which the Pakistan Air Force is still dependent on American supplies of spare parts and weapons. “We have completely shifted to Chinese weapon systems… no major weapon system of US origin acts as a frontline weapon system in our military,” said a Pakistani official.

In April 2022, the then Chief of the Army staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa expressed his frustration with Pakistan’s western military suppliers during a security conference in Islamabad.

General Bajwa explained to an international audience that Pakistan had to look for other sources when the West denied defense equipment to Pakistan. General Bajwa said that Pakistan was denied military equipment from the West, though deals had been finalized and fully paid for. Giving examples, the army chief said Pakistan had procured T-129 helicopters fitted with US-made engines from Turkey, but the US refused to allow third-party certification. Similarly, the chief said that Germany refused to provide Pakistan engines for submarines, and France too did the same under pressure from India, which is a big buyer of French weapons. “So, what do we do,” General Bajwa asked, telling the American journalist, “it’s your (the US’) responsibility to maintain the balance. If you are tilted to one side outright, we will have to find sources to get the right weapons to defend ourselves. So, you (the US) need to carry out some introspection whether your policy is right or not,” General Bajwa told the journalist categorically.

General Bajwa expressed this frustration in April 2022, and within six months, he was on a high-profile official visit to Washington spanning six days. Bajwa was making calculated moves even before he went to Washington. He was distancing himself from the then Prime Minister Imran Khan’s move to visit Moscow at the time of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, Bajwa was describing Washington as a long-standing strategic partner and even publicly announced placing a telephone call to a senior US State Department official to facilitate Pakistan’s quest for a loan from the IMF.  Obviously, Bajwa was not acting on personal impulse. There was something cooking in the power corridors.

Two possibilities could be cited. Firstly, Pakistan was expected to be exposed to critical vulnerabilities as it has to pay around $77 billion dollars to its foreign creditors over a period of three years. Therefore, the Pakistani state would be dependent on international financial institutions like the IMF, which works under Washington’s influence - and a range of friendly countries also prone to US influence, to remain financially viable as a state. Secondly, Pakistan military elites have a penchant for Western weapons systems, which throughout our existence as an independent state have remained the first preference of our military elite. Chinese weapon systems may still be considered the second best option. There are areas where Pakistan’s military leaders would still like to induct western weaponry into its inventory. Thirdly, the Pakistani leadership during this period has repeatedly made clear that they would not like to become part of any camp politics with the world’s superpowers. It is a possibility that Pakistani leaders were finding it increasingly impossible to remain aloof from power politics in the face of growing voices from unofficial circles in Beijing that Pakistan would have to pick sides in the face of growing US-China tensions. Last, but not the least, Pakistan will be needing a financial backer who is ready to foot the bill for its expectedly prolonged military campaign against the resurgent TTP in the north west.

What role Washington and its security establishment played in compelling Pakistani leaders to make an earnest attempt to reconnect with Washington is not clear. Obviously, they have not been acting as bystanders. But precisely what was their role? It is not clear, with the lack of transparency acting as a norm in foreign policy making processes in Islamabad. In order to ascertain which way the wind is blowing in Islamabad, one only has to observe the summersault that former Prime Minister Imran Khan has just performed relative to his anti-American public campaign. His anti-American diatribes are no longer part of his rhetoric. He is now lobbying in Washington to pave the way for his return to power.

Something is afoot.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.