By Eram Ashraf
President Trump’s first tweet for 2018 came as a blow for Pakistan as he not only accused them of playing a double game but also suspended their security related aid. His tweet came after Pakistan army’s spokesperson had openly rebuffed US demands to do more about Afghan militant camps in Pakistan. While the timing of the tweet may have surprised many, coming as it did on the first day of the New Year, the subject matter was not.
Ever since President Trump had announced his new Afghan policy, Pakistan had been in the firing line. China’s statement of support therefore was welcomed by Pakistan as they are investing heavily in the country under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). In its recent fall out with the US, Pakistan appears keen on using China as leverage, as seen in a statement given by Pakistan’s defence minister, “Punishing Pakistan pushes it towards America’s major adversaries,”. However Beijing, as pointed out by Andrew Small, would prefer to see US remain friendly with Pakistan as a brake to growing US India relations.
The inclusion of India into the Afghan equation, as per Trump’s new Afghan policy, not only antagonizes US’s deteriorating relations with Pakistan, but also demonstrates the administration’s desperation. A better move by the previous Obama administration had been to encourage China, another of Afghanistan’s neighbour, to get more involved in the country. While China initially was wary of stepping in, it has since progressed to develop good relations with the Afghan government. A measure of it can be seen in their recent endeavour, in bringing together both Afghanistan and Pakistan to talk on terrorism.
If Pakistan believes ‘iron brother’ China will support them unconditionally in Afghanistan due to their rivalry with India, they need to think again, as evidenced by the joint Xiamen Declaration at the BRICS summit held in China. The summit, held shortly after China and India had agreed to stand down their armies at the Doklam plateau, in a joint declaration included groups allegedly based in Pakistan such as Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) and the Haqqani Network, as those considered a security threat to the region and their patrons put on notice. The move was seen in Pakistan as a reality check for the ‘all weather relations’ between the two countries and a victory for the Indian narrative against Pakistan.
It came as a surprise, as at the United Nations, China had blocked sanctions against Masood Azhar, chief of JeM and shown support for Pakistan. However, following that blockade, there appears to have been some concern shown by the Chinese side as to the efficacy of their move. In a private presentation to the Prime Minister and some high-level officials, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudary relayed not just Chinese support but also their concern regarding continued blockade of sanctions against Azhar. China’s advice to Pakistan was to change course in their support for such militant groups. Similarly, the Chinese Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, had reassured Indians regarding his country’s support for Pakistan saying, “We always put China first and we deal with problems based on their own merits.” India, he said had nothing to worry about from China’s support for Pakistan as his country supported China’s interests first, meaning, China’s support for Pakistan was conditional.
Pakistan for the time being faces very difficult days ahead. There is talk that the US may try to put further pressure by removing its status as a “non-NATO alliance partner”, a position which brings both prestige and financial benefits. There is also the risk that the US could demote Pakistan from ally to state sponsor of terrorism and enforce sanctions on them. In such circumstances, the best way for Pakistan to move forward is to have a two-tier response; military and diplomatic. On the military front, they should as announced, continue with Operation Raddul Fasaad and try to address US concerns as much as possible, after all a secure Afghanistan is in the interest of everyone. The danger to Pakistan’s internal security following such military action is very real and present something which Pakistan needs the world to acknowledge and respect. After relative quiet, an escalation in terrorist activity inside the country could threaten to derail any progress made so far under CPEC that too in a possible election year.
It is really on the diplomatic front that Pakistan needs to up their game and proactively counter the narrative of ‘two timers’ or else it will prove difficult to shift. President Trump knows the US cannot win in Afghanistan alone hence his demand for more from NATO allies and global partners. Pakistan therefore needs to ensure that these countries not only understand Pakistan’s position in the war on terror but publicly support them on their stand in Afghanistan. As was seen recently in the Iran nuclear deal, support from European countries proved crucial in the renewal process. It is fine and good that China openly supports Pakistan’s position in the war on terror but that support will be further strengthened if they see NATO countries doing the same.
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently called for China to “proactively shape its external security environment, strengthen cooperation in the security field and guide the international community to jointly safeguard international security”. His vision sees China not only shaping the security environment around them but also actively guiding others. Although the latter part has been now dropped, it speaks volumes for how China is now envisioning itself in matters of international security. What this means for Pakistan is that China will be very much ‘hands on’ regarding what happens in its immediate vicinity. Security in Afghanistan will increasingly be viewed in China not just from a Uyghur trajectory but also from “jointly safeguarding international security”. Hence, continued support from China for Pakistan will depend on how they see the security situation in Afghanistan unfold for their interests and Pakistan’s position in it all.
Eram Ashraf holds a PhD from Swansea University in International Relations with a focus on critical international security, social identity, social psychology and China. She teaches topics related to international relations, international security and Modern China. She is currently writing a book which looks at how China’s development/rise is being viewed by others. She tweets @eramash.
Original Published at IAPS Dialogue