With Trump tightening the screw on Pakistan and making overtures to India, Islamabad is likely to turn to China.
W hen Donald Trump declared with bravado that “in the end, [the US] will win” the war in Afghanistan, his words were felt keenly in Pakistan.
The US has tried to persuade, threaten and bomb Pakistan into changing its allegiances in the Afghan war for years. Its latest approach, announced on September 1, is to withhold a $225 million package of military assistance from Islamabad until it enhances its counter-terrorism efforts against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, one of its most dangerous and radical factions. After chastising Pakistan for “housing the very terrorists that we are fighting” after “billions and billions of dollars” have been paid to support the Pakistani military, Mr. Trump called on India to flex its economic muscle to help stabilise Afghanistan.
However, owing to its growing economic and strategic relationship with China, Pakistan now has more room to manoeuvre. Beijing, itself a rival of India and its status as a regional powerbroker on the line, may also feel compelled to get more involved. According to some experts, such a public move by the US to align with India and isolate Pakistan could drastically change the political dynamic of South Asia, not only cementing Sino-Pakistani links, but also setting up a geopolitical showdown between China and India.
Some also fear Mr. Trump’s bluster will be counterproductive.
Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement this week that “the simultaneous entreaty to India to become more involved in Afghanistan is also likely to make it more difficult, not less, to secure Pakistan’s cooperation against groups that some consider to be acting as its proxies.”
“Afghanistan continues to be a proxy war between New Delhi and Islamabad, and both sides see it as a zero-sum game,” said Seth G. Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the RAND Corporation, a policy research institute. Wary of India increasing its influence in Afghanistan, which would give New Delhi a strong presence on its eastern and western flank, Pakistan may be reluctant to give in to US demands, and will likely turn to China instead for economic and military support.
A different calculus
Pakistan has reacted strongly to Mr. Trump’s sabre-rattling, its lower house of Parliament unanimously passing a resolution which denounced the president’s rhetoric as “hostile and threatening”. It also condemned Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s threats to increase American drone strikes on Pakistani territory, countered US claims that it offers sanctuaries to militants, and asked the government to review all strategic cooperation with the US.
Arif Rafiq, a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, does not think Islamabad is bluffing. “Pakistan is prepared to absorb the impact of a more assertive US policy toward the country,” he told the New York Times. “It’s the most economically stable that it’s been in a decade, thanks in part to massive Chinese investment, and it has managed to secure much of its border regions despite the withdrawal of most US combat forces.”
When Pakistan turned to Beijing in 2011, after the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces in Abbottabad rocked US-Pakistan relations, it was rebuffed. But, six years on, Pakistan’s importance to China has grown. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $62 billion development plan involving railway building and laying fibre optic cables, is a key component of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
Andrew Small, author of a new book on China-Pakistan relations, suggests “there is a political premium to making CPEC a success.” For China to continue expanding its economic network and strengthening its alliance with countries around India, it must be prepared to commit to a level of support it previously would have balked at.
Recent history suggests that, as long as their interests are broadly aligned, Pakistan can count on China. In 2015, Pakistan was put under economic pressure by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to provide troops to support the Gulf Cooperation Council’s military intervention in Yemen. As Yemen’s Bab al-Mandeb Strait links the Horn of Africa to the Middle East, stability in the country spells great strategic benefit for China. Beijing promised economic investment and assistance to Pakistan so that it would not participate in the intervention and destabilise the region.
But China has its own reservations. While it remains determined to become the main power in East Asia, it might not be overly keen to fully exploit the deterioration in US-Pakistan ties. “Given Pakistan’s most important role for China has been as a counterbalance to India,” Mr. Small wrote, “it wants Islamabad to benefit from solid US economic and military support.”
China may also be reluctant to openly take sides, for fear of re-stoking tensions with India. A three-month-long border dispute with Bhutan and India was hastily settled before the start of this week’s BRICS summit in Xiamen. Nonetheless, in the long run, China still stands to benefit. Beijing sees sticking with its allies through thick and thin as crucial to its bid to become a respected regional power.
Beijing is also concerned that eastern Afghanistan could become a safe haven for militant Uyghur groups, which pose a threat to the stability of Xinjiang, an autonomous territory in northwest China that is home to many indigenous ethnic minorities. The Chinese government has long criticised such groups for conducting “illegal religious activities” and advocating independence.
It remains unlikely that China will radically alter its long held strategy of non-interference in South Asia. Nonetheless, circumstances have left Beijing facing little choice but to step up its support for Islamabad. If Mr. Trump translates his colourful rhetoric into tangible action and makes his support for India more concrete, he could fundamentally change the balance of power in South Asia.