Pak-US ties in a changing international environment -Express Tribune

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Speaking in New York during his recent visit, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi called the United States an important partner for Pakistan and emphasised the need for cooperation between the two countries beyond counterterrorism and Afghanistan.

“Our engagement has often been narrowly framed, dictated either by short-term security interests or the imperative to deal with a common challenge, and we want to break out of this pattern,” stated Qureshi, pointing to the cyclical nature of the relationship featuring historic ups and downs.

Even though Pakistan has been a most allied ally and has been instrumental in achieving some high value US foreign policy objectives since the 1950s, including fighting the War on Terror that claimed the lives of 70,000 Pakistani civilian; nevertheless, the relationship between the two remains complex.

While Pakistan has constantly reminded the US of its concerns to break such patterns, Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent statement that the US will reassess its ties with Pakistan after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan confirms the US will continue to see Pakistan through the prism of countries in its neighborhood, and will always expect Pakistan to “do more”.

Maintaining this approach towards Pakistan is not in the interests of the US and would be a strategic mistake in the current international environment which is moving fast towards a multipolar world. Asia is most reflective of this change as China advances in continents across the world via geo-economics through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The rising multipolar world poses challenges to the US and its status as the sole superpower. President Joe Biden recently stated, “We‘re engaged in a serious competition with China. We are dealing with the challenges on the multiple fronts with Russia.” Competing with Russia and China is certainly a challenge especially at a time when the US-India strategic partnership has faced a setback in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. India’s influence from Afghanistan is almost gone and its relations with China are of adversarial nature. Pakistan on the other hand enjoys good relations with China, and has played a pivotal role in the US-China relations in the past. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China in the early 70s is an event to note in the same context. Pakistan can help connect the US and China again in areas of converging interests and cooperation.

Pakistan has emerged as an important country in terms of geo-economics and connectivity and can be instrumental in shaping the future of South and Central Asia. In a world of increased connectivity and interdependency, the US needs to work in this direction, particularly after its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017.

If the US chooses to respond to China by making inroads in South and Central Asia and maintains a presence in the region, Pakistan’s involvement will be very critical. Pakistan has a unique strategic location and is “one of the few countries with high levels of access to China, European countries, and the US”. At this point, Washington may take into consideration developing more joint ventures with Pakistan, like the quadrilateral diplomatic platform involving the US and Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) launched in July 2021. Through developing trade, transit links, and business-to-business ties, PAKAFUZ focuses on enhancing regional connectivity and considers “peace and stability in Afghanistan critical”. However, here the US interest and involvement in PAKAFUZ may be due to the involvement of and focus on Afghanistan. In terms of expanding US economic influence in the larger region, PAKAFUZ represents a limited opportunity to do so.

The US then has the option for trade and investment in Pakistan, and by utilising Pakistan’s location and historic ties, the US can gain access to a larger market in Central Asia and Afghanistan which can be beneficial to American companies.

It is paradoxical that the US does not approve of the opportunities that a multipolar world offers Pakistan, which could be beneficial to the US as well. America is not happy with CPEC, although Pakistan’s security establishment has stressed multiple times that “CPEC remains central to our vision; only seeing Pakistan through CPEC prism is also misleading.” They have also emphasised Pakistan is not doing any inter-camp politics because it is not in the interest of the country. Pakistan is utilising opportunities for its economic development and security that the new world has offered. CPEC, a flagship project of China’s BRI, is one of that. As regional connectivity and geo-economics are in full swing in South and Central Asia, Pakistan has initiated its grand strategy, which entails that geo-economics will now constitute the basis for all policy formulation going forward. However, it appears the US does not see eye to eye with this and does not buy the argument of geo-economics due to its hostile relations with China.

The US does not seem to develop a policy towards Pakistan on a broader context. It continues to see Pakistan through specific prisms, and expects Pakistan to “do more”, in areas of US priorities. Pakistan has conveyed it views and has asserted that it cannot compromise its national interest anymore. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s stance to “absolutely not” provide bases to the US and offer to be a “partner in peace and not in war” are pillars of the policy Pakistan intends to pursue and the approach Pakistan seeks for a relationship with its counterpart — a relationship based on understanding, mutual respect, diplomatic reciprocity, and not through any other lens.

In a rapidly changing international environment, there are opportunities for Pakistan and challenges for the US — something that creates possibilities for Pakistan and the US to build a strategically beneficial relationship. It was a mistake to abandon Afghanistan in the 90s, and the US engaged in its longest war at the cost of $2.3 trillion. It would not be in the interest of the US to repeat such a mistake of distancing itself from Pakistan and not have a continued working relationship with a country which has been an ally for over seven decades.