By Farooq Yousaf
When the Prime Minister’s meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Sochi earlier this month, Pakistan’s PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi rightly pointed out that the alliance could play a major role in regional connectivity and development. Other representatives, including Afghanistan’s CEO Abdullah Abdullah also echoed similar sentiments asking the SCO of playing its role in the long term Afghan peace. The summit, in a changing geopolitical environment, hinted towards shifting regional and global alliances, with China at the forefront of this ‘new’ global order. Also, with Pakistan and India’s inclusion as full members in June, the SCO also boasts potential of playing the role of a mediator between tense neighbours and arch rivals.
However, Pakistan’s full membership in the SCO has interestingly coincided with the country’s current tensions with the United States.
Pakistan is not only now looking to reduce its dependence on the US, but also renewing efforts to establish fruitful ties with ‘Eastern’ powers. Islamabad, in this regard, has found its love for its former adversary in Moscow. It seems that Moscow might also be reciprocating to a certain extent. Russia has recently advocated for Islamabad’s inclusion in the nuclear elite group, along with support at the UN during various resolutions. Both the countries, during PM Abbasi’s Russian visit, also expressed their satisfaction on how bilateral ties are moving on a positive trajectory.
With the current tensions on an all-time high, and the CIA restarting its drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas, things are looking bad for the future of Pak-US bilateral ties. The US administration has also asked Pakistan to prove a ‘responsible stewardship’ of its nuclear arsenal. In response to such demands, Pakistan has also retaliated, at least verbally. The country’s National Security Adviser, Nasir Khan Janjua, recently accused Washington of exporting instability to South Asia, and also speaking India’s language on the Kashmir issue.
On the face of it, things seem dire, with a complete breakdown of ties imminent, however, on paper the reality suggests otherwise. Pakistani has in Washington its 57th largest trade partner with two way trade amounting to $5.5 billion last year. Also, as of today, Pakistan’s external debt and liabilities stand at $85 billion, with more than $2 billion paid by Pakistan in the last quarter to pay its external debt. With such financial constraints, any tensions with the US could backfire as Washington enjoys substantial policy sway over global financial institutions, such as the IMF and World Bank. Donald Trump also recently signed a bill for $700 million in reimbursements for Pakistan’s support of US military operations in Afghanistan; meaning that Pakistan is still a recipient of the US aid/compensation. A hard breakdown of ties, in current situation, with the US might surely backfire.
Therefore, Pakistan is treading a fine line at the moment.
On the one hand, it wants a well-publicised divorce with the US, whereas on the other, it is also trying ‘too hard’ to please China; mainly due to the ‘potential’ positive impact of CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) on Pakistan’s economy. Pleasing China isn’t bad, as for starters, Beijing isn’t interested in droning or threatening Pakistan on major security issues. However, an overreliance on China could also have negative repercussions for the country.
For almost five years now, successive governments have sold the idea of CPEC as ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ for Pakistan. From linking it to Pakistan’s prosperity to chiding Imran Khan for negatively affecting the project because of his first dharna (sit-in) in 2014, Pakistanis have heard all kinds of rationales for why CPEC is the country’s economic ‘saviour’. The project surely has its rewards; both short and long term. It might also end up creating jobs for Pakistanis, and therefore help the country’s economy. However, what happens after CPEC? Will Pakistan eternally rely on CPEC for its economic growth?
Pakistan, needs to effectively use its new regional alliances to strengthen its economy and in the process, reduce its reliance on major partners. It sounds pragmatic — at least in theory — for Pakistan to look eastwards and consolidate its new alliances. However, too much appeasement of its new partners could result in Pakistan remaining a client state, with the only difference of swapping one master for another.
The writer is a PhD (Politics) Candidate in Australia, who also occasionally consults the CRSS. He tweets at @faruqyusaf
Published in Daily Times, December 21st 2017.