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Pakistan has enough problems already, including attacks on the rise by Taliban rebels and a spiraling economic crisis, without the added headache of a new cold war between China and the United States
In an interview with POLITICO, Pakistan’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Hina Rabbani Khar, insisted that Islamabad was unwilling to take sides in the growing global rivalry between Washington and Beijing.
As a nuclear-armed heavyweight of 250 million people, Pakistan is one of the most closely watched frontline states competing for strategic influence in the Asia-Pacific region. While Pakistan’s old Cold War partner Washington is increasingly turning its attention to cooperation with Islamabad’s archenemy India, China has stepped in to extend its influence in Pakistan, particularly through giant infrastructure projects.
Khar insisted, however, that Islamabad was concerned about the repercussions of a total break between the US and China, which would present Pakistan with an unpalatable binary strategic choice. « We are greatly threatened by this idea of dividing the world into two blocs, » Khar said on a visit to Brussels. “We are very concerned about this decoupling… Anything that further divides the world.”
He added: “We have a history of close cooperation with the United States. We are not going to leave it. Pakistan also has the reality of being in a close and cooperative mode with China, and until China suddenly came to everyone’s perception of the threat, it has always been like this.
It is clear why Pakistan still sees advantages in walking the strategic tightrope between the US and China. Though US officials have expressed frustration with Pakistan’s historical ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and they have paddled back on military aid — Washington is still an important military partner. Last year, the US State Department approved the potential sale of equipment worth $450 million to maintain Pakistan’s F-16 fighter aircraft.
At the same time, Beijing is pledging to deepen military cooperation with Pakistan – in part to outflank the common enemy in India – and is carrying out massive projects to build roads, railways, hospitals and energy grids in its South Asian neighbour. While these Chinese investments have boosted the country’s economic development, there are also downsides to going all along with China, with critics of Beijing arguing that Pakistan has become overly indebted and financially dependent on China.
Khar grabbed the headlines in April when a leaked memo that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in which she was quoted as warning that Pakistan’s instinct to preserve its partnership with the United States would damage what she considered the country’s « true strategic partnership » with China.
She declined to comment on that leak, but took a more optimistic line about continued American might in her interview in Brussels, saying the US was unnecessarily fearful and defensive of being toppled from its global leadership pedestal, which she says is remained vital in areas such as healthcare, technology, commerce and the fight against climate change.
« I don’t think the leadership role is challenged, until they start making other people question it by being reactive, » he said. « I think the West underestimates the value of its ideals, soft power, » she added, emphasizing Washington’s role as the world’s standard setter. China’s main selling point for Pakistan, she explained, has been an economic model for lifting a huge population out of poverty.
Leverage – and the lack of it – in Kabul
Khar’s harshest criticism of US policy focused on Afghanistan, where he said restrictions meant to thwart the Taliban were backfiring, causing a security and humanitarian crisis, driving many Afghans into « criminal activity, strategy of narcotics and contraband ».
A weakened Afghanistan is causing greater security problems for Pakistan, and the Taliban in Kabul are believed to be supporting an expanding terror campaign waged by the Pakistani Taliban. Ironically, given Pakistan’s long history of engagement with the Afghan Taliban, Islamabad is finding it difficult to exert its influence and enlist Kabul’s help in curbing the latest wave of insurgency.
When the Afghan Taliban seized power in Kabul in 2021, then Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan celebrated their victory against « [American] slavery,” and spy chief Faiz Hameed paid a visit to Kabul and gleefully predicted « everything will be OKKhar, who took office last year, said Khan reacted « rather immaturely » and said her government always knew « draft was too projected ».
While the violence has put Pakistani soldiers and police at the forefront of the fight against the Taliban at home, Khar said Islamabad was taking a highly diplomatic approach in trying to win over the Taliban in Afghanistan, pursuing political engagement and focusing on economical progress. rather than strong arm tactics.
“Threatening someone normally gives you worse results than what you started with. Even when it’s exceptionally difficult to commit at a time when you think your red lines aren’t being taken seriously, we’ll still try the commitment route.
He firmly rejected the notion that any other country, the United States or China, could play a role in helping Pakistan defeat the Taliban with military deployments. “When it comes to boots on the ground, we wouldn’t welcome anyone,” she said.
Pakistan is seeking bailout money from the International Monetary Fund as the economy is hammered by blazing inflation and collapsing reserves. When asked if she thought Washington was holding back on supporting Pakistan, in part to test whether China would step up and play a bigger role in ensuring the country’s stability, Khar replied: « I would be very unhappy if that were the case. « .
No to the marines
When it came to Europe’s role in the Indo-Pacific region, he expressed reservations about the naval dimensions of the EU plans, an element favored by France. She was particularly hostile to any vision of an Indo-Pacific strategy dedicated to trying to contain Chinese power alongside working with India.
A major US fear has long been that China could use its investments in Gwadar port to build a naval foothold there, a move that would inflame tensions with India and allow Beijing to project major power in the Indian Ocean.
Khar said Europe should proceed with caution in calibrating its plan for the region.
« I would be very concerned if it was solely or predominantly a military-based strategy, which would then confirm that it is a containment strategy, it doesn’t have to be a containment strategy, » she said of the EU’s Indo-Pacific agenda.
“[If it’s] a strategy of containing a certain country, which then courts a certain country which is a very warlike neighbor of Pakistan, instead of stabilizing the region, is endangering it.”