Pakistan Searches for Better US Ties

CPEC boondoggle pushes Islamabad closer to the west but at a possible cost

By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

In the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Washington’s search for military bases in the region to ‘manage’ the war without any direct physical presence, Pakistan’s relations with the US are expected to undergo a transition to a more enduring military alliance than has been the case in past few years.

The imperative of re-establishing an alliance with the US is being equally shaped by the inability and unwillingness of the present regime in Islamabad to implement the massive China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, a US$50 billion project that has resulted in huge debt to China. That has led the Chinese to search for alternative countries to complement their trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

The estrangement between the two countries surfaced recently when China and Iran signed a multi-billion dollar bilateral trade and investment deal with Chinese officials taking a jibe at Pakistan, saying that Iran isn’t one of those countries that change their policies and priorities on a phone call. The remarks indicated a growing distance between Pakistan and China over the former’s search for diversifying its foreign relations and finding a balance between the US and China.

The Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC), headed jointly by China and Pakistan and responsible for all major decisions related to the CPEC, in 2018 and 2019 meetings yielded no major new capital projects. The 10th JCC meeting has already been postponed thrice, with China reluctant to approve a US$ 6 billion loan for the Mainline-1 (ML-1) railway track, the single largest project under the CPEC.

The Pakistan elite, which has failed to generate growth and has stripped the economy of cash, thinks the US withdrawal presents a hitherto unavailable opportunity to recalibrate Pakistan’s ties with the US to alleviate its ailing economy. In the wake of Pakistan’s growing need for financial help from the IMF, stable and enduring ties with the US have become all the more important, for Pakistan’s access to the IMF, in the past few years, has largely been facilitated by the role it has been playing since 2019 as a mediator between the US and the Taliban.

Therefore, while Pakistan continues to deny the possibility of providing a military base to the US, there is equally no denying that Pakistan’s current civilian and military elite have a strong desire to rebuild, even if it includes giving the US air and ground access to launch military operations and/or air and drone strikes inside Afghanistan.

The Pakistan foreign office recently confirmed that, while no new agreements have been signed with the US to give it military bases in Pakistan, the essential frameworks for air and ground support for the US military forces signed back in 2001 “remain valid,” which means that they are willing to reactivate these frameworks to accommodate the US interests in the region.

For the Chinese, the growing influence of the US and the increasing ability of the IMF to manage Pakistan’s economy mean greater US ingress into Pakistan, which is quite likely to trigger, especially now when the US and China are more than even locked into a power-struggle, an anti-CPEC and anti-BRI narrative and policies. The Chinese apprehensions are supported by the way the IMF has previously called for greater transparency around the CPEC projects, and how the US has variously called the whole project a “debt trap.”

The Chinese apprehensions are compounded by the present regime’s own massive mismanagement of the economy, and how it has led Pakistan into negative growth. While Pakistan’s elites have projected around 4 percent growth for the next year, both the IMF and the World Bank projections have predicted less than 2 percent. Even if Pakistan’s claims for 4 to 5 percent growth rate are taken to be true, it remains that achieving these growth rates depends on an uninterrupted flow of the IMF money into Pakistan in the next year. What this means is that not only is Pakistan’s economic survival, but the political survival of the present regime, depending on ties with the US, which in turn depends on how well Pakistan plays in Afghanistan.

Good ties with the US remain important not only for access to the IMF, but also for maintaining access to Pakistan’s largest export market, which includes sales of linens, rice, and garments. Trade figures show that US goods imports from Pakistan totaled a minuscule US$3.9 billion in 2019, up 5.7% (US$213 million) from 2018, and up 24.0% from 2009, with their total bilateral trade standing at US$6.6 billion in 2019.

Can Pakistan afford to jeopardize its ties with its biggest export market, especially at a time when the economy has really been struggling to maintain a positive growth rate? An anti-US role at this stage would largely make the US market further inaccessible, which could have serious political implications for a regime that has drastically failed to offer its voters anything concrete beyond a hollow anti-corruption narrative.

It is for this reason that the Pakistani elite (and the pro-regime media) have been emphasizing the need for a ‘strong’, ‘enduring’ and ‘respectable’ relationship with the US after the Afghan withdrawal. In a recent interview given to the New York Times, Prime Minister Imran Khan said that Pakistan seeks a “civilized,” even-handed relationship with the US of the kind the US has with India.

Earlier, When Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi recently met American lawmakers during a visit to the US, he outlined Islamabad’s vision of a “broad-based strategic partnership” that looks after the interests of both countries including in Afghanistan.

In another recent meeting between the two sides’ national security advisers in Geneva, both countries agreed to “advance practical cooperation.”

However, while Islamabad is undoubtedly searching for a strong and viable relationship with the US to reap both military and financial benefits, President Biden has not yet spoken to Imran Khan even though Pakistan is playing a central role in the final phase of the US war, and even though Pakistan remains on the US list for possible military bases around Afghanistan to continue the war post-withdrawal.

At the same time, Pakistan’s too-close military ties could invite a violent reaction from domestic militant groups, including the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Taliban (TPP), which recently staged a number of attacks in Quetta (in Balochistan), killing a score of paramilitary troops. The Afghan Taliban, too, have warned Afghanistan’s neighbors against any post-withdrawal military alliance with the US.

Therefore, even though the Pakistani elite is eager to revamp ties with the US, the caveats –in particular, the CPEC and the threat of the resurgence of militancy -- that come with it remain unresolved and could potentially upend Pakistan’s strategic shift.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel