THE recent visit of US Ambassador to Pakistan Donald Blome to the strategically important Gwadar port in Balochistan province (Pakistan) led to speculation regarding a potential shift in US-Pakistan ties, Washington’s concerns about the heavy Chinese presence in the region and how the visit would be perceived by Pakistan’s all-weather friend China. Located 180 nautical miles from the Strait of Hormuz, the Gwadar port was developed with significant assistance from China. The Chinese control and the Pakistan Government’s inability (or unwillingness) to address grievances in the province have led to resentment from the locals, and Baloch separatist groups have repeatedly targeted Chinese workers. Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have also witnessed a series of terror attacks by Islamist militants in recent years. The latest were the attacks on September 29 at a religious procession in Mastung district in Balochistan province and at a mosque in Hangu in restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Islamabad’s relationship with Beijing, by and large, has not been impacted by Pakistan’s strategic choices and ties with the US.
The US Embassy in Pakistan specified that the Ambassador visited Gwadar “to underscore the United States’ commitment to the people of Balochistan… the visit explored opportunities to enrich development, trade, and commercial ties... that underpin the robust US-Pakistan bilateral relationship.”
The visit is relevant from the perspective of Islamabad’s ongoing efforts to reset its wrenching relationship with Washington. The relationship between Pakistan and the US is perhaps one of the most consequential relationships that have traditionally impacted the strategic dimensions of the South Asian region. Interestingly, the two nations never trusted each other but still maintained a strong alliance in three critical phases: 1950s-1960s, 1980s, and post-2001. The bilateral relationship has gone through highs and lows, and the last decade has seen a strained phase. Former US President Donald Trump took a firm stand against Pakistan by cutting down the sale of US military equipment. Under President Biden, the relationship suffered a further blow as then Prime Minister Imran Khan held the US responsible for Pakistan’s economic and security woes and finally for his scandalous ouster.
Washington’s support remains crucial for Pakistan’s economic revival, its strategic position on the global forum and potential military modernisation. Since Shehbaz Sharif took over as Prime Minister, Pakistan has been focusing on the revival of its relationship with the US, and recent developments have been welcoming for Pakistan. After months of negotiations and exhausting rounds of meetings, on July 12, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a nine-month Stand-By Arrangement (SBA) for about $3 billion. The US has indicated its keen interest in enhancing economic cooperation with Pakistan. Both countries concluded their ninth meeting under the US-Pakistan Trade and Investment Framework in February. While security has been the focus of the previous phases of the US-Pakistan ties, the current phase seems to centre (until now) more on attempting to reset ties and redefine common areas of interest based on cooperation in the arena of non-traditional security threats.
Following Operation Neptune Spear and President Trump’s uncompromisingly tough stance on Pakistan, US military assistance to Pakistan decreased considerably, but Pakistan remained a crucial factor for the US in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s criticality in facilitating the Doha talks was acknowledged by the US. Post-August 2021, given the US’s decreased interest in the region and its active engagement in the Indo-Pacific strategy that doesn’t mention Pakistan, certain shifts have surfaced in the US-Pakistan bilateral ties. The relationship in the last two years has been seen evolving from a strong military and security-based cooperation to a comprehensive relationship that focuses on trade, climate change, human rights, counter-terrorism and people-to-people contact. On the other hand, the US certainly desires a stable Afghanistan that does not facilitate a global jihadi network and is seeking Pakistan’s active support on this front. The killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul by US drone strikes in 2022 indicates cooperation on counter-terrorism between Pakistan and the US. Even though Pakistan has denied its involvement in the operation, the fact remains that the feasibility of an operation of this nature remains questionable without Pakistan’s military assistance.
Although Pakistan is optimistic about its ties with the US, it is keen to revive the security dimension of the relationship. Pakistan has been playing its diplomatic cards rather meticulously. There have been reports of Pakistan allegedly supplying weapons to Ukraine to appease the West. On the other hand, Pakistan has started buying oil from Russia, and its wheat imports from Russia have surged exponentially. The alliance with China has expanded from a purely military one to a deepening economic partnership and unswerving mutual diplomatic backing. Hostility towards India has been a crucial factor in the China-Pakistan strategic nexus. However, Islamabad’s relationship with Beijing, by and large, remains independent and has not essentially been impacted by Pakistan’s strategic choices and its relations with the US. In fact, the US assistance contributing to Pakistan’s economic stability and strategic relevance is favourable for Chinese investments through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects in Pakistan.
Given the evolving nature of the US-Pakistan relations, it appears that Islamabad will try and create space for a security dimension. Reportedly, the Pakistan federal cabinet has approved the signing of the Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CIS-MOA) with the US. The US, on the other hand, seems to be committed to supporting Pakistan on non-security issues, but is not likely to completely refrain from extending strategic assistance in the future, given the geo-strategic criticality of Pakistan.
In this context, some questions are critical for New Delhi and Washington to analyse: (1) How effective has the US security assistance to Pakistan been (in the past) in fulfilling the US-stated objectives in the region? (2) Can the US persuade Pakistan to rethink its strategic calculus, which is vital for regional stability? (3) How will the potential security dimension of the US-Pakistan relations impact Pakistan’s ability and will to conduct its India strategy, which revolves around a covert war through terrorism and propaganda?
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