For years, Chinese and Pakistani leaders have described their relationship, created by a joint rivalry with their neighbor India, which “sweeter than honey.” But the Pakistani army’s views on relations with China appear to be sour – and differ from those of the political leadership.
Last month, after Prime Minister Imran Khan refused The Biden administration’s invitation to its democracy summit, Pakistani TV news anchor Kamran Khan posted a video on social media condemns the “wrong decision” one he declared was made at China’s instigation. (China was not invited to – or happy for – the summit.) The journalist lamented that by this step the Prime Minister had “put Pakistan open in China’s lap.” He claimed that Beijing’s loans had “caught” Islamabad, and he even called for a “review” of the pros and cons of China-Pakistan Economic Corridorwhich has brought billions of dollars in debt-driven energy and infrastructure investments to Pakistan.
In Pakistan, press freedom and politics lie in a gray zone, with red lines carefully controlled by the army. With just a phone call or WhatsApp message, Colonels can whip a cross-border editor or legislator in line.
So the explicit call to reconsider relations with China from one of Pakistan’s most prominent media voices is no accidental hot take. It reflects the consent, if not the orders, of the country’s khaki masters. In fact, Pakistan’s Praetorian army would have preferred according to a retired U.S. diplomatthat Prime Minister Khan had attended President Biden’s summit – to revive a relationship with a superpower that has given it the cold shoulder.
The generals, of course, have little love for democracy or, for that matter, America. What they have is a sharp sense of realism and a firm belief that the army is the guardian of the national interest. (The army has directly ruled or commanded strong indirect political influence throughout most of Pakistan’s history.)
The army leadership must know that it has no permanent friends among political forces at home or abroad. It constantly seeks strategic maneuverability, balancing domestic and foreign forces in response to changing realities and to avoid dependence on a single patron, agent or ally.
The historical on-again-off-again relations between the United States and Pakistan is a perfect example. The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent American invasion of Afghanistan brought Islamabad and Washington closer. Army-ruled Pakistan had no choice but to accept a number of US demandsincluding complicity in overthrowing a Taliban regime it looked like friendly.
But in the mid-2000s, Pakistan resumed covert support for the Taliban, with the aim of forcing a negotiated US withdrawal. Last year, Pakistan got what it wanted. But now, after spending two decades pushing America out of Afghanistan, the Pakistani army seems to want it back in the region.
Because like US-China competition intensified, the Pakistani army fears being caught in a dead end with Beijing. So it seeks to balance the two great powers by intervening in areas of cooperation, including counter-terrorism and trade, that can save relations with Washington.
The Prime Minister, on the other hand, seems to be more driven by personal feelings. He especially admires China’s political system its gains against poverty and it is ruthless anti-corruption measures. And he has one anti-American streakwhich helps explain why he may be more receptive to Chinese pressure.
The army, however, does not seem to nurture such a grudge. Its focus is the present and the future, which seem offensive. Pakistan the economy is bubblingwhich could be a recipe for social and political unrest, as well as cuts in military spending.
As the rooster from China dries up – given Beijing growing reluctance to lend to high-risk countries – and Pakistan’s economic problems worsen, much of the army command sees Mr Khan’s hypernationalism as counterproductive truculence, and military leaders increasingly see him as a passive rather than an active one. This helps to explain the indictment to Washington, which includes not only the messages of the Democracy Summit, but also a US diplomat rare access to the tightly controlled, Chinese-operated port of Gwadar.
But the attempt to return to America will most likely not go far. Goodwill in Washington has dried up, mainly due to Pakistani intelligence support for the Taliban. And Islamabad’s sins are not the only driving force behind the divorce between the United States and Pakistan. Washington has wholeheartedly embraced India, seeks to promote its progress as a global powereven if that country is moving towards Hindu nationalist authoritarianism. Time and time again, Washington has allowed an “India exception” in its human rights or nuclear proliferation policies, encouraging New Delhi and endangering Islamabad.
When relations with Washington were on a nadir in 2011, Islamabad turned to Beijing to procure military hardware that it could not get from America, i.a. drones and advanced aircraft. China and Pakistan accelerated their joint production of one low cost fighter jets which forms the backbone of Pakistan’s air force. And Pakistan became the only foreign country with access to the military version of China’s Beidou satellite navigation service.
While Pakistan’s generals appear annoyed at the prospect of being captured by China in a new Cold War, they have also benefited from Beijing’s new muscularity – as when India was forced to divert troops from last year. front lines with Pakistan towards the border with China.
Fear of one two-front war with China and Pakistan have dominated New Delhi’s attitude towards Islamabad so far. But they also tighten the Indo-American embrace. Paradoxically, Pakistan’s partnership with China can pay off for good.
To counter China, India is overcoming its inhibitions to adapt to the Americans, diluting its “strategic autonomy” and deepen bilateral defense Cooperation. This in turn increases Pakistan’s dependence on China, its largest arms supplier and bilateral creditor. And it reinforces the Pakistani army’s fear of being strategically wrapped up.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has learned the hard way that when it comes to trade and lending, its special relationship with China is not that special.
Islamabad began in 2020 trying to renegotiate the expensive electricity contracts that it ruthlessly entered into with Chinese companies. Beijing not only refused to do so, but it insists that Islamabad repay $ 1.4 billion in arrears owes Chinese electricity producers.
Pakistan lays almost all its eggs in one basket and is learning the limits of what it means to be an “ally” of China. Its predicament offers lessons for other smaller countries to navigate a new era of rivalry between the United States and China: Do not blindly pursue China as an alternative to the United States. In trade and commerce, China’s approach is mercantilistic to both friends and enemies.
And although Pakistan’s army appears to be trying to distance itself, it may be too late.
Arif Rafiq (@arifcrafiq) is the president of Vizier Consulting, a political risk advisory firm specializing in the Middle East and South Asia. His research focuses on the relationship between China and Pakistan.
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