How Have Dramatic Changes In 2022 Shaped Pakistan's Relations With The World's Big Three?

How Have Dramatic Changes In 2022 Shaped Pakistan's Relations With The World's Big Three?
The year 2022 was a tumultuous one for Pakistan’s domestic politics and even self-image, but one aspect of foreign policy proves how structure is massively preponderant over the local imagination. Here, we refer to the country’s relations with the three great powers shaping the politics of Eurasia and the globe: i.e. the US, China and Russia.

As such, Pakistani foreign policy towards these giants is still defined by the perspective of the long-term rather than shifts in domestic politics and perceptions. Neither the populist posture and pretensions of the previous government nor the much-advertised pragmatism of the current government has been able to fundamentally alter Pakistan’s posture towards these three giants. At the end of the day, ruling elites in Islamabad and Rawalpindi are constrained to maneuvre within the confines of forces far more powerful than their will, preferences or desires.

The great driving forces of Pakistani policy towards the world’s great powers remain the same:

a) the strategic rivalry with India, which necessitates functional ties with both China and the US. China is vital as a rival of India, which sees eye-to-eye with Pakistan on key regional issues. The US seeks to ally with India but nevertheless has to be courted for its arms and aid, as well as to prevent Indian influence in the world’s most powerful capital from completely overpowering that of Pakistan.

b) the structural dependence of the country on foreign creditors and helpers due to its inability to carry its own economic and fiscal weight. This, of course, necessitates ties with China, Saudi Arabia and others who help Pakistan out from time to time. But even more, it requires at least functional ties with the US, whose preponderant influence over the international financial institutions that lend to Pakistan is no secret.

c) the shift in the global power balance towards multi-polarity. This opens opportunities for Pakistan to build ever closer ties with traditional friend China, and to open new avenues of cooperation with Russia – leaving behind the mutual distrust of the 20th-century Cold War between Moscow and Islamabad. Yet even as the 21st-century world is being shaped by a new Cold War of sorts between the US and China, Pakistani policy-makers are haunted by the possibility of becoming one of the battle-grounds between traditional patrons in NATO and traditional friends in China.

The first two considerations keep Pakistan locked into a delicate balancing act between friends in Beijing and patrons in Washington. The third factor, as we will examine later, allows for some room to maneuvre in a world of newly emerging alternate power centres – but subject to Pakistan’s structural dependence on Western financial, military and technological resources.

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan had been able to build a personal rapport with former US President Donald Trump despite the latter’s initial hostile posture. This arrangement, however, could not last as the Biden administration took over. With his characteristic impetuosity and preference for dramatic shifts in posture, Khan began to align Pakistan ever more closely with Beijing, even as tensions heated up between the US and China. Moreover, ties with Russia, which had already been a significant priority for the military establishment and the previous administration, were pursued by PM Khan’s government with a most suggestive vigour.

As PM Khan’s government fell after a bitterly contested vote of no confidence (VONC) in April 2022, all eyes turned towards the new regime.

The new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, due to his domestic marketing as a man who “gets things done,” promised more rapid work on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Soon after assuming power, meetings were held with Chinese stakeholders and investors, and we are told that these meetings were by no means a tepid affair. There was no shortage of complaints from Chinese investors. The previous government, for all its rhetoric, was widely accused – by Chinese commentators as much as Pakistani ones – of having allowed CPEC projects to languish.

Whether or not a previous ‘neglect’ of CPEC took place, we can be sure that Chinese media outlets such as the Global Times presented the new Pakistani prime minister as someone who was accustomed to working with Beijing, and that he could be counted upon to revive CPEC projects.

The new government has been keen to play up its commitment to strategic and economic ties with China, including an affirmation of Pakistan’s support for the One China policy. Beijing, for its part, has stepped up to offer debt-stricken Islamabad with credit re-rolling and deferred payments of loans, as well as commitments towards a $10-billion railway among others. Security for Chinese nationals working on projects in Pakistan remains a key concern – and officials, diplomats and commentators alike from China have never made a secret of their concerns on this front.

The understandings reached during PM Sharif’s November visit to Beijing are precisely what they appear to be: there have been no new game-changing commitments, but enough has been offered to underline the importance that China places on its longstanding strategic partnership with Pakistan. Overall, as long as the Belt and Road (BRI) remains central to Chinese imagination, Pakistan as a key node of the emerging new Silk Route will retain its key place in Beijing's scheme of things.

Moreover, China's interpretation of multi-polarity as the opposite of a zero-sum game, and its understanding of Pakistan's specific difficulties, both mean that Beijing is unlikely to make its partnership with Islamabad conditional on a wedge being driven between Pakistan and the US.

And this brings us to the decades-old question: what will relations with Washington D.C. look like?

Ties with the US have been strained for reasons that go far beyond the rhetoric of the last months of PM Khan’s administration. The simple fact of the matter was that Pakistan and the US ended up with very different takes on the end-game to the two decades of NATO occupation and involvement in Afghanistan. Any ‘reset’ that the new Pakistani government proposes must necessarily be just as rhetorical as the previous government’s break with the Biden administration. The existence of a Taliban-led regime in Kabul provides a very powerful material basis for the divergence between Washington D.C. and Islamabad.

Nevertheless, the opportunity for a renewed dialogue between the US and Pakistan is arising out of the counter-terror requirements of Islamabad, especially as the hopes pinned on the Afghan Taliban are souring. Let us briefly go over why this is so.

Simply put: the hypothesis of the Pakistani security establishment and political right-wing on the Afghan Taliban has crashed and burned in the past few months. Their much-cherished hope was that the Afghan Taliban would help rein in the Pakistani Taliban, because they would be somehow ‘grateful’ for two decades of relatively safe havens provided to them in their war with NATO and the previous Afghan state authority. Instead, the Afghan Taliban take a very different view of Pakistan’s role in two decades of the US-led War on Terror. In any case, the new rulers of Kabul have a very powerful incentive to inherit the Pashtun irredentism of previous Afghan regimes, and the associated rejection of the Durand Line – meaning that there will be little sympathy for Pakistan’s feud with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or attempts to fence the Pak-Afghan border.

And so, the possibility arises for the US to dangle financial and other assistance in front of a cash-strapped Pakistan which faces the prospect of another prolonged counter-terror campaign against the TTP. In this emerging context, the factors shaping Pakistan’s relations with the US are best examined here for The Friday Times–Naya Daur, and the reader must be referred to that author’s analysis.

We have seen how structure and developments beyond their control shape Pakistani policy-makers’ approach towards the two most powerful countries in the world: the superpower that is the US and the emerging power that is China.

But there is one area in which Pakistani policy-makers over the past decade have been able to assert their imagination: and that would be ties with the Russian Federation. Due to the need for tapping into Russian arms, energy resources and commercial prospects through Central Asia, we have seen Pakistani policy-makers keen to start with a clean slate when it comes to Moscow.

Gone is the mutual hostility of the 20th century, where Pakistan was supposed to act as a frontline anti-communist partner of the US against the Soviet Union. Sensing the shift towards multi-polarity in Eurasian affairs, there has been a consistent drift towards better ties between Moscow and Islamabad – pursued keenly by both sides.

This cooperation was taken to new rhetorical heights during the final weeks of PM Khan’s administration, with Pakistan joining other Global South countries – including its own arch-rival India – in adopting a position of neutrality on Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. For his part, President Putin is known to take a lively interest in this bilateral relationship with Islamabad.

The prospect of Russian energy resources at discounted rates is one that holds much attraction for Pakistani governments in their desperate search for respite in a harsh economic context. A Russian team is expected by Islamabad in January 2023 to finalise arrangements for Pakistan to begin buying crude oil and petroleum products from Russia.

This writer’s own view in April was in line with that of the far better-informed experts, dismissing predictions of an upcoming dramatic pro-Western shift as merely so much partisan propaganda from one party against its opponents.

One could take this view with confidence because the structural constraints described earlier are far too powerful to permit any dramatic shifts in Isalamabad’s overall posture.

And so, Pakistan’s slow and steady drift towards the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) power centres of Beijing and Moscow continues, but perhaps with less theatrical anti-Western posturing from the Prime Minister’s office.

As for the US, it remains to be seen whether a rhetorical reset on both sides can change the contours of bilateral ties. In the meanwhile, Pakistan remains too dependent on the international financial institutions to allow a total breakdown of relations with Washington D.C., and too embedded in its own regional realities – especially with regards to Afghanistan – to develop a stable partnership.