Walking a tightrope
China’s growing global footprint has become a significant geopolitical political challenge for the United States. This has significant financial, strategic, militaristic and perceptional implications for established and widely accepted hegemony.
The United States has long enjoyed unprecedented world supremacy, both economically and martially, and its primary export to the world is the American dream fused with its powerful popular culture. Xi Jinping’s vision for a modern China is a direct threat to this primacy.
This makes Pakistan’s position in the world order particularly precarious. Pakistan has been a key ally for China and the United States, has been elevated to major ally status by both, and even served as an initial interlocutor between Beijing and Washington with Kissinger’s first secret visit in July. 1971. Pakistan is caught in the middle, anxious to maintain cordial relations with the two, either antagonizing one or the other, or inevitably drawn into the burning conflict.
The neo-Cold War is no longer a theoretical proposition. On October 7, 2021, in perhaps the most telling move of American angst over China’s meteoric rise over the past decade, the CIA launched the China Mission Center (CMC). The official jargon states that its objective is to “address the global challenge posed by the People’s Republic of China which cuts across all of the Agency’s mission areas”. CIA Director William Burns concluded, “…the most significant geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century, an increasingly adversarial Chinese government.”
Given China’s ambitions to lead digital transformation and innovation solutions in the 21st century, a less reported parallel development has been the formation of the Transnational and Technology Mission Center with a CTO position. This, coupled with the CMC, is a massive shift in focus, begun under President Trump, and inevitably continued under President Biden. Biden also needs the feather for taking China head-on in his cap, especially given his unpopular image and the disastrous exit from Afghanistan.
The message is clear. China is the biggest threat to US primacy, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, and far beyond. The formation of the Quad and AUKUS are also additional steps to consolidate power, lobby, create clear lines of division and competition, and (re)establish US foreign policy power by any means necessary.
It is important to establish here that no state acts outside of its own interests, and while this is very obviously true of the Americans, it is absolutely true of the Chinese. The main difference between the two is military power (the first) versus economic power (the second), because China cannot, at the moment, match the gargantuan war machine that the United States has at its arrangement. This also relates to China’s very measured view of never interfering in other countries’ affairs, especially with boots on the ground. While the US military-industrial complex no longer has the Afghan conflict to keep turning, that theater seems to have been quickly replaced by Ukraine, with Eastern European countries turning to the military-industrial complex for security through the purchase of weapons and equipment.
Over the past few months, several examples have shown that Pakistan is not only in an awkward position, but is being actively reprimanded by both sides, albeit in entirely different ways, and perhaps for different results.
For the United States, there are details between the diplomatic cracks to pay attention to. The absence of an official American ambassador following the departure of Richard Olson (until his very recent appointment), the visit of Wendy Sherman (which was seen by many as a deterioration in bilateral diplomatic relations at the level of Secretary of State deputy), Masood Khan’s status as Pakistan’s designated ambassador to the United States, and the absence of any formal communication between Blinken/Biden and Imran Khan, all point to a subtle cool attitude and the application of restraints to any forward momentum.
For China, this manifests in its grand design for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, and its irritation at the archaic and anachronistic bureaucratic hurdles it faces in the Pakistan. Although the problem here is more about Pakistan’s legacy, institutionalized obstructionism and internal struggles and rivalries, the fact remains that China cannot afford to face any embarrassment regarding the CPEC (and therefore the BRI). Pakistan’s new national security policy is also very China-centric, adopting a “geo-economic view” of regional connectivity and interdependence.
Experts also believe that lobbies in Pakistan, eager to restore relations with the West, are deliberately sabotaging CPEC-related activities to drive a deeper wedge. However, this can easily fall under conspiracy theories and externalizing internal disarray. China will inevitably tighten the screws, especially if Pakistan is seen as capitulating to the United States and adopting bilateral behavior.
Pakistan has its work cut out for it. Growing debt and deficit, a struggling economy and the continued FATF gray listing ensure that Pakistan will be dependent on help from multilateral bodies for the foreseeable future. Pakistan is also indebted to China for the massive investment in CPEC infrastructure. In simpler terms, it needs both sides to survive in the short to medium term, and maybe even the long term.
All of this is made worse by the fact that the political climate in the country is in turmoil, with a beleaguered prime minister looking for quick and easy wins to drum up support and sympathy. Walking the tightrope delicately and with a realpolitik mindset is the only way forward at this point.
The writer is Director of Growth and Strategy at Tabadlab Pakistan. He tweets @zeesalahuddin and can be reached at: