In the wake of Fukuyama’s “End of History” proclamation and Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, the world witnessed a shift towards multipolarity. Fareed Zakaria referred to this as the “rise of the rest,” which signifies the ascent of the global centre of power in the East, along with other emerging powers. Multipolarity represents a shift towards power distribution among multiple major powers within the international system. The current order presents elements of instability as the alliances become more fluid and coordination trickier. As Pakistan grapples with internal political and economic instability and emerging order where the United States (US) and China vie for influence, it faces challenges in navigating the evolving global dynamics. This article analyses Pakistan’s strategic approach toward the US and China in the emerging multipolar world order.
Pakistan is grappling with the convergence of substantial challenges, encompassing political tensions, economic crisis and resurgence of security threats. The removal of the Imran Khan government exacerbated existing divisions in a nation already contending with severe deficits in democracy, governance and the rule of law. Muhammad Taqi argues that Imran Khan’s ascent to office in 2018 marked the establishment of a hybrid regime combining the element of democracy with underlying military influence to some extent. He faced a no-confidence vote in April 2022, leading to his ouster and intensifying polarisation in the country. Following the ouster from power, Imran Khan started protesting against the premature dissolution of the government and demanded a fresh election. Due to the persistent call and heightened tension, the violent May 9, 2023, incident happened, triggered by Khan’s arrest due to corruption charges. The individuals associated with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) were taken into police custody, and Imran Khan experienced a media blackout. PTI faced a harsh crackdown after May 9, and Khan faces charges of allegedly leaking the state’s secrets. The coalition government formed was dissolved on August 9, and a caretaker setup was established that declared the scheduling of elections for early February 2024. Still, the political landscape remains uncertain and unstable.
Navigating political and economic instability, Pakistan maintains a delicate balance between its historical ties with the US and its deepening collaboration with China, exemplified by the CPEC initiative.
The political instability led Pakistan to the brink of economic collapse. In February 2023, Pakistan’s foreign reserves dwindled to a critical level. At that time, China extended $2 billion in loans, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) extended a $3 billion, nine-month bailout. The economic turmoil, coupled with political instability, shifted the focus away from critical issues, impacting the nation’s stability and democratic governance. The economy continues to struggle with rising debt, heightened by increased debt servicing costs, augmented government spending and the need for additional foreign funds, making the economic landscape increasingly challenging. Therefore, Saudi Arabia has rolled over $3 billion for another year to support Pakistan.
In contemporary times, the international strategic landscape is marked by conditions of volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity. Globally, the US and China’s competing interests have shifted to Asia. However, China, rather than the US, wields significant influence in Asia. As stated earlier, the Asia-Pacific region stands out as the most vibrant and pivotal area globally, shaping the landscape of global power dynamics. The US shift towards Asia and its Indo-Pacific strategy is meant to foster economic expansion, ensuring equilibrium in the face of China’s increasing prowess and upholding a lasting presence in the region. However, the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco, particularly the meeting between Biden and Xi, offers a potential alleviation of some concerns. Washington’s prioritisation of curtailing China’s military and technological advancement over economic growth signals a strategic emphasis on constructive economic competition with Beijing, ultimately benefitting both the US and the global economy. However, the formation of Russia-China coalitions raises issues for the US in the region.
As for Pakistan, a multi-vector foreign policy envisions comprehensive national development, avoids exclusive alignment with any single axis, and embraces a deliberate transition to multipolarity. In alignment with the guiding principles set by the founding fathers, the constitution, and the aspirations of the people of Pakistan, the nation’s foreign policy aims to uphold globally acknowledged norms in interstate relations.
Balancing is essential in managing conflicting interests and navigating the complexities of different regions. This approach necessitates political stability, sustained economic growth, and strategic engagement with major powers, notably the US and China. Adapting to the dynamic global landscape requires nuanced and flexible strategies that avoid rigid alliances. Pakistan has stated its preference to avoid camp politics in its National Security Policy (NSP). There is a deliberate collaboration with China. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiated in 2015 underscores Pakistan’s commitment to fostering economic and infrastructure development. Concurrently, historically fluctuating ties with the US were exacerbated by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. While expanding relations with China, Pakistan remains aware of its dependency on the US, its largest trading partner. Recognising the importance of economic investment and security cooperation, Pakistan aims to balance its relations with major powers, which is useful for maintaining strategic autonomy. However, developments such as growing US and Indian defence cooperation, exemplified by agreements such as the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), have disrupted the regional balance and have pushed Pakistan closer to China. Pakistan’s recalibration of ties with the US is essential in the changing world order. Deepening engagement with China through CPEC showcases Pakistan’s commitment to navigating regional complexities while upholding globally acknowledged norms.
Prime Minister Kakar’s visit to the US in mid-September, including a meeting at the 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and a discussion with IMF representatives, reflects efforts to reset the relations. Concurrently, the US Ambassador’s visit to Gwadar and the Pakistan Army Chief’s visit to Washington demonstrate a commitment to maintain enduring ties amid uncertainties following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s Army Chief, Gen Asim Munir, has emphasised economic security and military defence while advocating a balanced strategy to avoid global political entanglement. The revitalisation of CPEC projects, despite reported performance issues, reflects a renewed commitment to securing Chinese interests and has breathed a new life into the initiative. Besides, he aims to address the economic challenges through cooperation with friendly nations.
To summarise, Pakistan’s approach in the emerging multipolar world reflects the nation’s strategic response to internal challenges and evolving global dynamics. Navigating political and economic instability, Pakistan maintains a delicate balance between its historical ties with the US and its deepening collaboration with China, exemplified by the CPEC initiative. The recent diplomatic engagements signal an effort to reset relations with the US while reinforcing enduring ties with China. Pakistan’s commitment to globally acknowledged norms and strategic balance remains paramount as the world order transforms, emphasising the need for nuanced and flexible strategies in a complex international landscape.