Pakistan continues to be ravaged by multiple crises across its spectrum of chaos. At the political level, the populist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party led by former premier Imran Khan is engaged in an intense confrontation with the loose coalition of rivals huddled together under the banner of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and the entire state machinery, particularly the national security and law enforcement apparatuses.
Economically, Pakistan is already on the brink of default and imminent collapse because the federal government is either unable or unwilling to carry out necessary structural reforms as dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). To cope with uncertainties, different high-ranking government members are meeting with Arab Gulf leaders to find yet another ad-hoc solution to avoid the coffers from getting empty.
From a security perspective, the state is experiencing a combined resurgence of terrorism and insurgency perpetrated by elements supported by neighbouring countries. Several areas of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces are now teeming with the usual lot of “hostile elements” that were purportedly “eliminated” by military operations; these fantastic claims by some of the incumbent Army Chief’s predecessors have been laid bare in the most gruesome manner and bear consequences not just for internal security but some crucial regional connectivity and investment projects also.
As far as society is concerned, the ouster of Imran Khan through a Vote of No Confidence (VONC) by the PDM early last year has only increased anti-American sentiments, mostly because of the PTI’s fiery narratives that the administration of Joseph Biden had allegedly sponsored a “regime change”. The barrels of such rhetoric has not spared the incumbent military leadership either.
Broadly, the three branches of government in Pakistan (executive, legislative and judiciary) have been discredited by rival political parties from both camps, creating an environment that is neither conducive for strategic diplomacy nor foreign investments.
One feared consequence of this vicious internal chaos is that Pakistan is meticulously reinforcing its irrelevance at both the regional and international levels. A proper genesis of the dilemma necessitates a closer examination of regional geostrategic developments since 2021 that links Pakistan’s future prosperity to the activities of two competing global actors, i.e., the United States (US) and China.
Chronology of Events
2021: While the US was reeling from a dramatic transfer of presidential power from Donald Trump Jr. to Joseph Biden, China was giving the final touches to a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement with Iran that absorbed the country into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In parallel, the Biden administration abruptly announced a drawdown of US-led international forces from Afghanistan, followed closely by a visit to US Navy’s 5th Fleet Headquarters – Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) in Bahrain by Indian Navy’s Western Naval Command chief. During this visit, Commander NAVCENT discussed aircraft carrier operations and India’s membership in the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), prospects which are a reality today. This development was followed soon by the formal relocation of Israel from the US European Command (USEUCOM) theatre to the US Central Command (USCENTCOM).
Thus, while the US had essentially left behind a vacuum in war-torn Afghanistan, it has facilitated avenues for deepening cooperation between Israel, its “normalised” new friends in the Arab Gulf and a rising India. Washington’s patronage and military partnerships with these countries also help (except India) to deter Iran in the seas and through an integrated air and missile defence umbrella.
2022: In January 2022, Iran announced the formal implementation of the 25-year agreement with China to achieve its “Asia-centric” foreign policy. Meanwhile, an “excited” but poorly-advised Imran Khan visited Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin and other officials in February, right when the Kremlin had entered into formal conflict with Ukraine.
The optics of this visit was disastrous and eventually resulted in the controversial VONC in April. Following Khan’s ouster, PTI included the country’s military leadership in its targeted criticism, alleging that the high command allegedly connived with the PDM through Washington’s patronage for a “regime change”; these claims were refuted on record by then spokesperson of Pakistan Armed Forces.
Through press statements and sponsored op-eds in English-language publications, the Chinese government preferred to focus on the future of Sino-Pak relations and embraced Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s federal government. It is a matter of public record that multiple projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) were stalled during the federal government of PTI, causing great consternation to the Communist Party of China (CPC). Moreover, security incidents targeting Chinese interests were on the rise and proved to be a nightmare for Beijing.
By July 2022, the third meeting of CPEC’s Joint Working Group on International Cooperation and Coordination, held through video conference, concluded with agreements to boost projects and extend CPEC to Afghanistan. The long-held frustration from the Chinese side can be gleaned from the news report by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which mentions that Pakistan should “accumulate positive energy for, inject new impetus into, and provide a strong guarantee for the development of the CPEC” and “do a good job in telling CPEC stories”. Islamabad had clearly disappointed Beijing and needed a lot of catching up to do. Meanwhile, parallel to the Sharif-led PDM government’s civilian overtures and after the damaging nationwide flood-induced disasters, USCENTCOM’s new Commander, General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, was being engaged for support by then Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Reportedly, Bajwa had also unusually contacted US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman for help in the release of critical IMF funds to sustain Pakistan’s coffers.
A month later, in August, Kurilla visited Pakistan to meet Bajwa and lay the foundation for subsequent transportation of post-flood disaster relief supplies from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID’s) warehouse in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) through military cargo. While Pakistan looked towards the US for disaster relief assistance and also secured approval to upgrade its fleet of F-16 fighter jets, Iran resumed diplomatic relations with the UAE and Kuwait and had started discussions with Saudi Arabia. It is well known today that the foundation for these discussions was laid by the Chinese government under the leadership of President Xi.
In Central Asia, China finalised the revival of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway as part of a “southern Eurasia corridor” in September 2022, which some analysts preferred would extend to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the future and is expected to start operations this year. While China was building up alternative regional connectivity networks, Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders embarked on back-to-back visits to the US. Foreign Minister and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) co-head Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari visited Washington after participating in the United National General Assembly (UNGA) meeting in New York for talks with different lawmakers and members of the intelligentsia, which many observers in Pakistan consider, with great substance, to be a personal PR and grooming tour for the young politician.
This visit was followed thereafter, in October, by a 6-day visit to the US by a military delegation led by Bajwa, which reportedly included talks with top defence and intelligence officials. Meanwhile, the PDM government held a second high-level moot with Chinese counterparts, the 11th Joint Cooperation Committee on CPEC, through video conference. Both sides agreed to restart the much-delayed ML-1 railway project that is considered to be the backbone of the CPEC. The Pakistani government once again attempted to allay Chinese concerns about relevant security measures. During a regular press conference that month, Chinese MFA spokesperson Zhao Lijian (with a previous posting in Pakistan) remarked that their country looks forward to “more fruitful outcomes” from Sharif’s planned visit.
The joint statement of the November visit includes Pakistan’s unflinching support on Chinese matters of concern, such as Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan etc., and also pushes for continued high-level engagements between armed forces personnel from both sides. The contents and tone of the statement are contradictory to assertions in the Western media and think tank community that the incumbent PDM regime was “brought in” to reorient Pakistan away from China. On the contrary, a thorough examination of the statement’s contents indicates that the CPC leadership places high expectations from the incumbent regime while carefully reiterating concerns for the safety and security of Chinese interests in view of threats from terrorists and insurgents. Islamabad’s signalling of maintaining a “balance” in ties with the US and China can also be gauged from Pakistani envoy Ambassador (Retired) Masood Khan’s remarks during a conference hosted by the Atlantic Council. In a surprising twist, Imran Khan carefully backtracked on his earlier “regime change” theory and called for his party’s “reset” of ties with the US but on “dignified” terms.
While Washington’s biggest mainstream political critic was coming to terms with ground realities, certain policymakers of Pakistani origin huddled together with their American counterparts as part of a “Pakistan Study Group” under the Hudson Institute in November 2022. They advocated in favour of the Sharif-led PDM government, building a case for its embrace by legislators in the US, and repeatedly emphasised the need to divert Pakistan’s “exclusive” attention and dependence on China to larger interests. The recommendations also propose the revival of International Military Education and Training (IMET) opportunities for rising officers in Pakistan’s military ranks for better networking and influence-building. Later that month, Pakistan Army found a new chief in General – Syed Asim Munir.
Interestingly, Kurilla was among the first on-record military leaders to contact Munir upon assuming office and discussed enhanced bilateral security cooperation; a press release by USCENTCOM in December 2022 added that both leaders have a “previously established relationship”. Shortly thereafter, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP’s) deputy chief Qari Amjad’s name was included in the list of ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorists’ by the US government. The context of this decision was the resumption of attacks by TTP following its unilateral withdrawal from a ceasefire with Pakistani authorities. Munir and his counterparts in Central Asia were actively onboarded by Kurilla to discuss increased security cooperation with the US, while Bilawal was again hosted by the US think tank community to discuss bilateral relations.
While Pakistan was reeling from another wave of resurgent terrorism, Xi embarked on a historic visit to Saudi Arabia which led to multiple agreements in December 2022, especially joint coordination between the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 and CPC’s BRI. The opportunity was used by the Chinese President to discuss the CPC’s broader agenda to embrace the “Arab World”. Later that month, Kurilla visited Pakistan to meet Munir and the incumbent Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Sahir Shamshad Mirza.
2023: Throughout the first two months of the ongoing year, Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders engaged thoroughly with Arab royals.
Munir embarked on a visit to Saudi Arabia and then the UAE in January 2023 to discuss defence and security cooperation with respective authorities; the meeting with UAE’s President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan stands out in particular because it included the country’s powerful National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan among the participants. Meanwhile, Sharif called Beijing to “fast-track the bilateral cooperation agenda”, but it is rumoured to be a request for emergency financial assistance. Later that month, Sharif hosted a quiet visit by Sheikh Mohammed that took place in Rahim Yar Khan and not the capital Islamabad; it is believed the visit’s location was changed in view of security risks due to ongoing political agitation but also to rejuvenate hospitable arrangements for Emirati royals in the dunes of southern Punjab province (the area is referred to as ‘mini UAE’ by some locals because Emirati royals frequently visit for hunting and recreation).
Kurilla called Munir in February 2023 to discuss counter-terrorism, border security matters and condole the Peshawar terrorist attack. A few days later, Munir embarked on the UAE for another meeting with Sheikh Mohammed, this time on a more informal level at the Qasr al Mushrif, the Abu Dhabi ruling elite’s family palace.
More recently, China managed to surprise the world (and especially the Americans) once again by facilitating the restoration of diplomatic relations between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran in March 2023. While this may lead to reduced flashpoints, Pakistan is far from breathing a sigh of relief.
Diversification of American and Chinese Networks
Outgoing CPC Premier Li Keqiang’s Final Report delivered during the First Session of the 14th National People’s Congress in March 2023 briefly discussed the advancement of BRI projects but modestly acknowledged multiple systemic factors hindering proper developmental growth, not least the issue of corruption. Despite not being of retirement age, Li Keqiang was replaced by the new Premier Li Qiang, along with most other high-ranking members. In his concluding address to the congress, Xi pledged to build the People’s Liberation Army “into a great wall of steel that effectively safeguards national sovereignty, security and our development interests”, hinting toward greater responsibility on China’s armed forces to secure development interests overseas. China has visibly started focusing more on three zones in particular: ASEAN, East Africa and Eurasia.
The recent statements by Kurilla before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees on USCENTCOM’s posture statement and Defence Authorisation Request for FY2024 also merit careful scrutiny. Kurilla highlights the fact that the US is in strategic competition with China (viz 2022 National Defence Strategy) and that the BRI remains “a strategic lever to supplant the US leadership in the region under the guise of benign economic initiatives and broadening security relationships”. CPEC is acknowledged as a “flagship” project of the BRI. As the US realigns its strategic priorities from the Middle East to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ theatre, it has reduced force presence and budget allocations for USCENTCOM, encouraging greater reliance on Artificial Intelligence and unmanned systems for all-domain operations. Kurilla disclosed that three innovative Task Forces (59, 99 and 39) of USCENTCOM were actively collecting data from unmanned surface and underwater sensors to develop a composite picture of the maritime threat environment and also maintaining a counter-drone capability, primarily against Iran. USCENTCOM has become a “data-centric warfighting headquarters” and is validating capabilities to help partners “compete strategically with China and Russia”.
Above in view, some pertinent facts need to be stated:
- The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) party of Shehbaz Sharif, which holds the highest executive portfolio in the federation and influential Punjab province, has expressed unwavering loyalty and support for the CPC, its BRI project and foreign policy issues of contention (Xinjiang, Tibet et al.). Sharif met Biden only informally, on the sidelines of the UNGA meet.
- The PPP, holding the Foreign Affairs portfolio, is the more active ‘pro-American’ prong (for lack of better words) in the federation and serves as the most likely interface for high-level engagement between Washington and Islamabad. Bilawal has visited the US on multiple occasions.
- Pakistan Armed Forces’ incumbent leadership has neither visited the US nor China, so the speculations of favouring one patron over the other are pointless. Incumbent Commander USCENTCOM has been actively engaged with Pakistan Army since assuming office, and the Pakistan Navy has also once again served in a senior directing role during the region’s largest maritime exercise, IMX 2023.
- As of yet, no American or Chinese political leader has visited Pakistan.
While Pakistan remains mired in internal conflict and chaos, the two important countries it is trying to ‘balance’ relations with (the US and China) are not only strategic competitors but developing partnerships with countries which are more stable. The US has already propped up India to network across the ‘Indo Pacific’ paradigm through its famous minilateral arrangements, be it the Arab Gulf countries or powerful actors in the Indian and Pacific Oceans (France, UK, Japan, Australia); the convergence of major European extra-regional actors’ ‘Indo Pacific’ strategies with the QUAD and lobbying through Indian Ocean Rim Association are ongoing.
China appears to have recalibrated its focus on developing alternate land and sea routes through Central Asia and East Africa, respectively. With the addition of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the opportunity for an assured foothold in the contested Persian Gulf/ Arabian Sea is ever-high. Through Russia, China finds a stronger partner in Iran. Islamabad, of course, does not enjoy any privileged relations with Moscow, and if recent flight records are to be believed, Pakistan is apparently providing material support to Ukraine in line with Washington’s directives.
Whether the PDM retains its hold on the federation or is succeeded by the PTI is irrelevant; stakes of both American and Chinese stakeholders are under increasing threat. Andrew Small, a scholar at the Marshall Fund, remarked that Pakistan should be “one of the biggest winners” from China’s rise but cautioned that “if Pakistan’s internal security deteriorates or if Chinese anxieties about the country’s political direction worsen, it will be a great lost opportunity for the country”.
With the US still interested in limited non-security cooperation and China looking at more stable regional partners, it would seem Pakistan is fast losing the great opportunity. Looking beyond the spectrum of uncertainty in which Pakistan is currently mired, the objective assessment is that the country is fading into irrelevance. Political strife, economic collapse, worsening security and social polarisation create an unfavourable environment for diplomatic engagement and especially foreign investments of strategic value for any country, let alone the two rival strategic competitors.