Pakistan’s Dangerous Obsession with Continental Policymaking

For well over three decades, since the beginning of the Soviet-Afghan War, Pakistan has had the opportunity to act as a key enabler in regional conflict management. The Cold War strengthened Islamabad’s belief that it was a “geostrategic pivot” for competing powers based on dealings with the US as an extra-regional actor in Afghanistan.

Since the dawn of the second millennium, China’s economic rise has been nothing short of meteoric. From joining the World Trade Organisation (2001) and introducing Qualified Foreign Institutional Investor programme (2002) to officially overtaking Japan as the world’s second largest economy (2010) and Beijing’s launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) under Xi Jinping ushered in a framework for trans-continental connectivity and economic cooperation that directly challenged the Western (read: US-led) supremacy.

Consequently, mindful of long-term “threats” from China, the strategic establishment in Washington shifted its focus away from landlocked “conflicts” in the Middle East and West Asia toward countering perceived Chinese expansion in the maritime front. This necessitated a massive geostrategic rethink, one that groups together (albeit ludicrously) the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean theatres into an “Indo-Pacific” framework.

The United States (US), under the Barack Obama regime, found like-minded partners and allies in Shinzo Abe of Japan and Narendra Modi of India. With time, this coterie based on personal understanding developed into the “Quad” framework. Today, there are several European countries such as France, the United Kingdom (UK), Germany, Netherlands and even the European Union as a regional collective, promoting their own concepts of the “Indo-Pacific”. New paradigms of political, socio-cultural, economic and military conduct are being derived from these concepts.

Conceptual paradigms aside, while China does not believe in any “Indo-Pacific”, per se, its evolving naval strategy has increasingly called for dual attention to both the Indian and Pacific oceans. Securing Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in the former is more important for Beijing, since there are credible concerns of an India-led naval blockade in the Eastern Indian Ocean viz the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Strait of Malacca; the threat paradigm is exacerbated by prospects of Indo-US interdiction operations from Diego Garcia.

The larger threat comes from the dominance of continental policymakers in Islamabad. The traditional land forces, which were the key benefactors of the Cold War-era geostrategic gameplans, seem uneager to cede space for a “maritime thinker” at the helm of affairs. Within the civilian bureaucratic confines of Islamabad, diplomats remain obsessed with the romantic treatment of Pakistan in the Reagan and Clinton administrations.

In this broader context, it was logical for China to invest billions into Pakistan’s economy and put the debt-ridden, mismanaged country onto a path of prosperity for mutual gains; this includes activating Gwadar as a commercial port for seamless maritime commerce to and from the Chinese mainland into Europe, via Pakistan; strategically, this would not be impacted by any hostile blockades and maritime interdiction activities in the Eastern Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. However, to maintain guard over its regional SLOCs, Beijing invested heavily in its port in Djibouti and is reportedly planning to use another East African port (Bagamoyo port in Tanzania) for the same purposes. Sri Lanka already passed the controversial Port City Bill that adds to New Delhi’s fears about a Chinese “takeover”.

The Chinese leadership has never suggested, even discreetly, that it intends to use Gwadar or other Pakistani ports for dual purposes (civil and military). That remains for Pakistan itself to manage. Examples include the setting up of Pakistan Army-led Special Security Division (SSD) and Pakistan Navy-led Task Force-88 (TF-88) for exclusive security of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Pakistan Air Force has also activated a new “strategic” base in Bholari, Sindh, which is 140 km from the coastline and participated in joint drills with Pakistan Navy to counter threats from the sea. Despite these developments, Chinese interests and engineers continue being targeted by terrorists in the north and south.

There may be genuine concerns among the Chinese observers that if Pakistan is unable to effectively manage homeland security, expecting something robust on the maritime front would be even more irrational. Pakistan Navy is responsible for the overall maritime security of the country’s interests, but it remains poorly financed due to negligible budget allocation. The larger threat comes from the dominance of continental policymakers in Islamabad. The traditional land forces, which were the key benefactors of the Cold War-era geostrategic gameplans, seem uneager to cede space for a “maritime thinker” at the helm of affairs. Within the civilian bureaucratic confines of Islamabad, diplomats remain obsessed with the romantic treatment of Pakistan in the Reagan and Clinton administrations.

Altogether, Pakistan’s defence and diplomatic establishments remain intellectually entrenched in the notions of a US-dictated regional order, if not global order. A glaring example of this strategic faux pas is Pakistan’s involvement in a new quadrilateral forum (alongside Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and the US) to manage the Afghan peace process. It is highly likely that Islamabad was later informed, rather than taken into confidence, before being inducted to this “platform”. It is deeply embarrassing that while the US itself accommodates India into its larger Central Command (CENTCOM) framework for extended regional consultations and boosts its capabilities across the “Indo-Pacific”, Pakistan is again pushed toward a continental geostrategic policy focused around Afghanistan.

History will bear witness that while the US, UK, India and other powers recalibrated themselves to better manage their spectrum of geostrategic interests, Pakistan remained dangerously obsessed with Afghanistan. This would help explain why China has been charting its own course in preserving Indian Ocean SLOCs without consulting Pakistan; Islamabad refuses to think outside Afghanistan and the North Arabian Sea, at the cost of its own long-term interests vis a vis CPEC.

Once upon a time, Pakistan was a core participant in regional forums such as the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) that was set up through China’s blessings to promote a shared security framework involving Afghanistan and Tajikistan. After the apparent demise of this arrangement, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Contact Group on Afghanistan, another regional effort, met to discuss the post-drawdown consequences. The QCCM appears to have defragmented, leaving the SCO as the bulwark of any meaningful regional cooperation; this was imperative, since any efforts excluding Russia would surely have resulted in zero gains for other stakeholders.

Thus, while Pakistan was once the blue-eyed boy of the US establishment in the region, it now finds itself shuffling between the SCO and the new US-led “continental quad”. This remarkable display of naiveté is not “balancing” in a multipolar world but a clear display of geostrategic confusion. Islamabad can either devote itself to a region-led and region-owned effort or place all its eggs, once again, in the US’ basket.

Both camps are distinct, with contrasting perceptions and desired long-term outcomes. For example, the SCO-led framework wants to ensure a stable Afghanistan that does not create liabilities for neighbouring countries and is based on a policy of non-interference, while the US-led framework is premised upon Washington’s expected gains from soft power investments in Central Asian Republics in opposition to China’s interests. In fact, at the recent meeting of the SCO Foreign Ministers to discuss Afghanistan, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned the US from “shirking” its responsibilities and throwing the burden on regional countries. Judging from the optics of the new “Continental Quad”, the US has already placed this burden on Pakistan.

History will bear witness that while the US, UK, India and other powers recalibrated themselves to better manage their spectrum of geostrategic interests, Pakistan remained dangerously obsessed with Afghanistan. This would help explain why China has been charting its own course in preserving Indian Ocean SLOCs without consulting Pakistan; Islamabad refuses to think outside Afghanistan and the North Arabian Sea, at the cost of its own long-term interests vis a vis CPEC.

By limiting its geostrategic spectrum – thanks to consistently terrible continental policymaking – Pakistan is dangling toothless between the US and China and hedging its bets on Afghanistan for international validation. India, with which Pakistan seeks parity, has charted a multilateral partnership framework for itself that can be adjusted according to its needs in bilateral, multilateral and international arenas. It has ventured deeper into Africa, Southeast Asia and Indian Ocean island countries to strengthen existing ties and forge new ones.

China, which is a late comer to Indian Ocean powerplays and until a few years ago was a “nobody” in the Indian Ocean maritime security sphere, is doing far more than Pakistan could have and should. Amidst this potpourri, it is rather delusional for Pakistan’s policymakers to blame outsiders for its own strategic blunders.

Zaki Khalid

Zaki Khalid is a strategic analyst and freelance commentator based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His areas of interest include national security, geopolitics, cyberspace and maritime affairs. He is also the founder and editor of 'Pakistan Geostrategic Review (PGR)', an independent platform publishing a premium newsletter and podcasts on geostrategic developments. He can be reached on Twitter @misterzedpk.

Leave a Comment

Login

Welcome! Login in to your account

Remember me Lost your password?

Lost Password