The U.S. is maintaining close ties to both Pakistan and India, but Islamabad is arguably a more important ally for Washington than New Delhi. The U.S. maintains close relations with Pakistan due to their decades-long partnership and India due to its increased efforts to counterbalance China’s growing influence in Asia, but Islamabad may be more important for U.S. interests both globally and in Asia.

Pakistan Imran Khan
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Pakistan has been America’s partner since the Cold War era for decades, while U.S.-Indian relations had remained rather cold throughout the decades since the Cold War. Only in recent years has Washington started reaching out to New Delhi to complete its geo-strategic objectives in countering China’s growing role in the region.

U.S. faces a tough choice: Pakistan or India

While India is seen by Washington as a key player in the U.S. pivot to Asia, many believe that Pak is losing its role as the key South Asian ally of the U.S. There are multiple reasons why Pakistan-U.S. ties keep plummeting: Pakistan’s growing friendships with China and Russia; China’s discontent with their friendly relations; and the U.S. blaming Islamabad for the rise of terrorism and radicalism in Asia and the Middle East. However, Washington’s decision to seek closer ties to India – Pakistan’s traditional enemy – hit U.S.-Pakistan ties most critically and most painfully.

The U.S. will not be able to remain close to Pakistan for many years, as warmer India-U.S. ties are seen by Pakistanis as a slap in the face. It’s even more painful for Pakistan that the U.S. is willing to sacrifice its decades-long friendship with Islamabad just to fulfill its hegemonic goals in Asia.

One can argue that China-Pakistan relations would never have seen their current level of partnership across the board if China were indecisive about its stance on the Kashmir dispute or if China wasn’t so supportive of Pakistan on multiple other diplomatic matters, such as rejecting India’s diplomatic bid suggesting that Islamabad is a terrorist state.

The paradoxical solution for the U.S. is bridging to Beijing via Islamabad

While having close partnerships with two traditional enemies such as Pakistan and India at the same time is practically impossible, the U.S. will have to prioritize and decide which is more important to its interests in the long run.

While many experts seem to believe that seeking closer ties to India would better serve U.S. interests in Asia, in the long run, maintaining a close partnership with Pakistan would better serve America’s interests, even though Islamabad is arguably China’s biggest friend.

As paradoxical as it may sound, friendship between Islamabad and Beijing could play into the hands of the U.S. without hurting Islamabad or Beijing in the process. Islamabad and Beijing have brought their partnership to a whole new level thanks to the $57 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which has created numerous business and economic opportunities for the two nations and should significantly improve connectivity in the region.

U.S. could benefit from “friend of a friend” strategy

Pakistan’s joint project with China and their numerous other initiatives in the region are commonly believed to be obstacles to U.S.-Pakistan relations, but those beliefs are built on the questionable assumption that a strong Chinese economy is a threat to U.S. efforts to contain its role in the region.

Instead, Washington should see Pakistan playing a vital role in strengthening China’s economy through CPEC as a unique opportunity. If the U.S. maintained close ties to Pakistan, it could use Islamabad as a bridge to Beijing. Instead of jumping in with India and going hostile on both China and Pakistan, the U.S. could communicate with China, the friend of its friend Pakistan, to reach a compromise or even seek concessions on issues such as its growing role in the South China Sea.

In addition to that, allowing Pakistan and China to enjoy the benefits of CPEC while maintaining close ties to Islamabad would enable Washington to serve its other interests in Asia, such as preventing war in the region, seeking further nuclear proliferation, expanding economic growth and trade, and improving cooperation on a number of regional issues, including eradicating terrorism and combating drug trafficking.

Russia’s key role in U.S.-Pakistan and U.S.-India ties

Just last week, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, formally invited Washington to invest in projects under CPEC. Taking an active role in the game-changer project would not only help the U.S. achieve its regional peace objectives and ensure a prosperous and peaceful Asia but also help improve its troubled ties with Beijing. And that would allow the two nations to reach an understanding on a number of regional and international matters.

If the U.S. chooses to place its anti-China strategy into the hands of India, it risks facing pushback from at least three countries: Pakistan, China, and Russia, which had been the key ally of India for decades before the U.S. took a more friendly stance toward New Delhi over Islamabad. That’s when Russia started seeking closer ties with both Beijing and Islamabad.

Russia’s role in U.S.-Pakistan and U.S.-India ties is equally vital. If Washington keeps growing closer to India, it risks pushing Moscow closer to China. That would most likely result in creating some sort of formal alliance between China and Russia – something that could create major problems for its global dominance.

While Moscow, Beijing and Islamabad have expressed interest in getting closer and joining forces against the U.S. (if Afghanistan and the THAAD missile system are any indications), the U.S. could reverse growing Russia-China ties by simply focusing on Pakistan as its main South Asian ally. That would turn Moscow away from Islamabad, as Russia only started seeking closer ties to Pakistan due to recently friendly ties between India and the U.S.

U.S. goals: Pakistan and the Afghan issue

The U.S. would benefit not only from Pakistan’s growing strength in the world and its economic advances thanks to CPEC but also from Islamabad’s key role in helping resolve the Afghan crisis. While many experts argue that achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan and eradicating terrorism in the region would be impossible without Pakistan, Pakistan’s ambassador has offered a formula for restoring peace in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani ambassador’s formula, which includes reaching a reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban, could significantly ease America’s headache in Afghanistan. The U.S. Defense Department reported last week that at least 2,248 members of the U.S. military have died in Afghanistan since 2001.

U.S. President Donald Trump, whose administration has yet to outline a clear South Asian policy, faces a choice: seek closer ties to India and attempt to isolate both China and Pakistan – something that would drive up tensions in the region and could even spark a major war – or seek close relations with Pakistan and allow Islamabad to serve as a bridge to Beijing.