Thursday, March 30, 2023
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Pakistan realises it can’t abandon US for China yet. But how far will Bajwa & Co go?

If Indo-Pacific was a room, Pakistan would want to stand inside even if it doesn't get a seat at the table.

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Pakistan’s security establishment may be excited about finding the right person to do an important job – help restart its conversation with Washington. Moeed Yusuf, the newly sworn National Security Advisor who was recently elevated from the position of Special Assistant to the Prime Minister, was dispatched to Geneva to meet his American counterpart Jake Sullivan. Although one can only speculate if Yusuf is up for the job, he is expected to deploy his perceived advantage of having spent a decade or more in the think tank and security policy circle in the US capital to start a conversation with the Americans that the Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and his cabal currently need.

The General Headquarters in Rawalpindi wants two friends instead of just one, which means that it earnestly wants to hold on to the US that seems to be disengaging strategically. A generational shift in strategic relationship is at play here, and is worth watching in the coming years. Pakistan military’s dependency on the Chinese for technology has grown consistently. General Bajwa is perhaps of the generation that continues to want a military-technological relationship with the US despite its possibility turning increasingly dimmer. The Pakistan Army chief is still reminded of his meeting with former US President Donald Trump, who had promised him the moon. The Biden administration with its strategic priorities, however, is a different ball game.

General Bajwa and his team belong to a generation of military commanders that represent hybrid Pakistani-American trained generals. Their career is marked by a long engagement with Washington and by Pakistan’s significance for the US in fulfilling the latter’s goals in Afghanistan. While the US may still be interested in Afghanistan and what happens in Central Asia, its traditional military engagement with Afghanistan, especially via Pakistan, is coming to an end. As Pakistan gets used to the shift, it still wants to hang on to the old relationship.

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Pakistan knows what it can get and cannot

Although Islamabad has never confessed to its ties with the US being strategic, a title that is only kept for China (and lately Saudi Arabia), it is a significant set of relations that the military echelons do not want to abandon. The message delivered to the American NSA, Jack Sullivan, was that Pakistan wants an engagement beyond the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is, however, not known how far Pakistan is willing to go to engage with American security interests. Though observers suspect that a military base was offered, the idea sounds remote. There is far more at stake and the situation is much different from 2001 when Pakistan had allowed the US to use its airspace and bases. Pakistan cannot afford to annoy the Taliban, which has already warned “Afghanistan’s neighbours” against giving the Americans access to their bases. In any case, Islamabad is not yet ready to disengage from its main set of friends in Afghanistan, especially at the time of American withdrawal. Furthermore, with the recent flare-up in Palestine, Islamabad would have to be doubly cautious about what it offers to the US.

Not to forget the Chinese, who have infrastructure investment in Pakistan and do not appreciate sharing space with the Americans. There is a lot of speculation about Islamabad wanting to swap ties with China for the US, which is also not likely. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has its problems, but the project is not abandoned. With the US only marginally interested in Pakistan, Beijing remains the only country with an interest in investing in the much-needed infrastructure investment.

Islamabad is not willing to let go of the relationship with the US and continues to talk about a reset in its priorities without necessarily undertaking a major reset. A significant transformation is required to shift the relationship goal from military to economic. Islamabad badly needs to change its institutional infrastructure to be able to make its economy vibrant and attractive to the outside world. There is also a huge gap between American and Pakistani view of Chinese power, particularly the CPEC. Needless to say, there is an underlying understanding that the F-16s or any other major technology is not on the table for any bilateral conversation.

Such technology transfer is now impossible because American priorities are different, and that a technology handout to Pakistan will go against the grain of Washington’s newly developing ties with India. Moreover, the US will not be inclined to transfer technology to Pakistan that tends to share it with China. Rawalpindi will probably have to work more to understand the complexity of Quad and that it does not fit into America’s Indo-Pacific plans, the goals of which are very different and contrary to Pakistan’s own strategic objectives and relationships. It certainly cannot become party to a plan that focuses on ‘othering’ China, and certainly does not want to be included in the list of the ‘other’. There is a certain belief that Washington could be convinced to abandon the Indo-Pacific project or at least tone it down.

Proverbially speaking, if Indo-Pacific was a room, Pakistan would want to stand inside — even if it doesn’t get a seat at the table and can’t give any input that could impact the strategic future of the region. It wants to keep a close watch over how America’s relations with India develop, or how the quad evolves into a force that can counter China. This way, it could also be useful to Beijing. It is not inclined to be relegated to the Chinese camp where it found itself in 2015. The foreign policy circle made an effort to bring the clarity that while it is believed that the future belongs to China, Pakistan would remain engaged with the US as well and not entirely abandon the bilateral relation to India. If Pakistan could run its two-friends policy during the critical decades of the 1960s and 1970s when China was a lesser power and America the bigger, then why cannot it do it now? The one issue is that this is quite different from the Cold War competition.

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US will remain engaged but tradeoff is over  

The US also seems inclined to keep some level of ties with Pakistan. This year in February, the American Navy participated in the Aman-21 naval exercise. Sources spoke about the two countries planning to hold another naval exercise this year. There are certain benefits of keeping Pakistan inside the room especially from the counter-terrorism perspective, an area in which persistent pressure seems to have paid off. Rawalpindi may not have abandoned its jihadi proxies, but it now, more than ever, sees the benefit of disengaging from violent non-State actors as a policy tool, at least as far as external operations are concerned. It may take a while before the country’s deep state abandons the option of engaging with militants entirely even for domestic purposes, for which a constant reminder is necessary. Not to forget that there is a strategic advantage for the US to keep a relationship in which it has invested for decades. The US is certainly not strategically popular in Pakistan but continued tactical engagement with the military echelons can have its payoffs.

Pakistan military’s top brass continues to consider itself as part of the Western strategic constellation. The country’s power elite, including the military top brass, is a beneficiary of American soft power. The personal future of some of the most significant players and their families are tied with the West, especially the US. The American military training programme, which is set to start again after Covid-19 restrictions ease, has been critical in providing Washington with links inside Pakistan’s armed forces. Restarting the International Military Education and Training (IMET) student exchange programme will at least fill the gap in the absence of a major purpose to enhance military-to-military contact.

Naturally, this is likely to change in the next decade or so, especially after the US withdraws its troops from Afghanistan. The two militaries will be less intensely engaged as they were in the past couple of decades. Furthermore, the US is no longer a source of major weapons procurement for Pakistan, which is why, increasingly, the new generation of military commanders will have Chinese training on their resume. The current naval and air chiefs, for example, have significant Chinese training. The dependency on the US, however, will continue as long as China does not improve the quality of its basic training for which Pakistan will keep looking at Washington. But for all weapons-related training, it will have no option but to look at China. A shift can already be foreseen.

For now, Islamabad will continue to remain in the twilight zone imagining, as Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said recently in reference to the US: “They will need us down the line so it’s better to remain engaged with Pakistan.” But while the generals wait for their NSA to pull some trick out of his hat, it will be worthwhile for them to think carefully about reimagining Pakistan and picking itself from the ashes of Covid that will leave the entire South Asian region in a mess.

Ayesha Siddiqa is research associate at SOAS, London and author of Military Inc; Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal. 

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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