Pakistan wants closer and more stable ties with the United States under President Donald Trump, similar to its ties with China, according Pakistani Minister for Planning, Development and Reform Ahsan Iqbal.
The news comes amid somewhat mixed relations between Washington and Islamabad, as the newly-elected U.S. President is reportedly considering including Pakistan on his infamous Muslim ban list (something the Pakistan government warned against recently) for the country’s alleged ties to terrorism. Meanwhile, senior officials of the two nations held a series of meetings last week where they reportedly reached an agreement to improve ties.
While addressing the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, Mr. Iqbal expressed his hope for improved U.S.-Pak relations and invited U.S. investors to Pakistan to supplement the country’s economic growth driven by the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.
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“Pakistan and the US married very early. They filed for divorce three times but on all three occasions geostrategic compulsion forced them to live together. If that is the destiny, we might as well live happily forging stable relations,” Mr. Iqbal said of U.S.-Pak relations.
Can the U.S. and Pakistan achieve the level of Pak-China ties?
Praising the Pak-China ties and saying that cooperation between the two nations is reaching new heights amid the CPEC project, Mr. Iqbal said Islamabad wants “this kind of relationship with the U.S.”
“This is our desire. We wish to see lot more stable relations with the U.S.,” Mr. Iqbal said, inviting American investors to Pakistan and describing his country as an emerging economy.
Pakistan’s desire to upgrade its relations with the U.S. to the level of today’s Pak-China ties is somewhat surprising, given the current scale of cooperation between Islamabad and Beijing, which have grown united on virtually all fronts: strategic partnership, diplomacy, military and economic ties.
Although the U.S. and Pakistan have enjoyed close ties for nearly seven decades and were major allies during the Cold War era, their current relations are a far cry from their ties a few years ago, let alone from the current scale of cooperation between Pakistan and China.
Obstacles in U.S.-Pak relations are challenging
It would also be challenging to upgrade Pak-U.S. relations to the level of Pak-China relations due to the Trump administration’s loud and clear intentions to fight against terrorism and his willingness to ban citizens of Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. Since Pakistan is a Muslim nation and Washington has for years accused Islamabad of being responsible for the spread of terrorism in the region, Pakistan could also end up on that list, further deteriorating Pak-U.S. relations.
Despite the high level of distrust between Washington and Islamabad in the wake of Pakistan’s alleged ties to terrorism, recent reports indicate that “better days are ahead” of relations between the U.S. and Pakistan — at least that was a sentiment shared by Pakistani Ambassador in the U.S. Jalil Abbas Jillani on Monday.
Jillani’s statement is not the only indication of apparently warming relations between Washington and Islamabad. Last Friday, senior Pakistani and U.S. officials held high-level meetings in Washington where they “pledged to deepen engagement between the two countries in the economic and security realms,” as reported by DAWN, citing the meeting between Special Assistant to Pakistan Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatemi and U.S. Ambassador David Hale.
U.S. must designate Pakistan as state sponsor of terrorism: think tanks
However, not everyone wishes for improved Pak-U.S. relations. Several major U.S. think tanks wrote a report in which they urged the Trump administration to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism and start dealing with Islamabad as a non-ally for its support of the Afghan Taliban and its alleged ties to terrorism.
The report cited by the Economic Times also advises the White House against providing Pakistan military equipment or any other kind of aid, as America’s efforts to help the Islamic country only “encouraged those elements in Pakistan that hope someday to wrest Kashmir from India through force.”
In the report compiled by dozens of major U.S. think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, experts argue that the Trump administration should warn Pakistan that it will revoke Islamabad’s status of a major non-NATO ally within six months unless it “takes immediate steps to demonstrate that it fully shares US counter-terrorism objectives.”
Could the U.S. get involved in China-Pakistan’s CPEC?
One could argue that U.S.-Pak relations could significantly improve if American investors become involved in the CPEC project, which, according to Mr. Iqbal, has huge potential for growth and connectivity in South and Central Asia.
While Mr. Iqbal named peace, prosperity and the well-being of the people of the region as the main objectives of CPEC, there are also quite a few economic benefits of the $46 billion joint project between China and Pakistan. The Pakistani Minister for Planning, Development and Reform also said that CPEC was in line with Islamabad’s Vision 2025, which aims to upgrade the Islamic country from a lower middle income country to a high middle income country.
Mr. Iqbal also said that initiatives under the CPEC project have stimulated overall economic growth in Pakistan and boosted the country’s steel, cement and construction sectors. Fitch Ratings recently issued a report stating that economic growth in Islamabad is expected to strengthen to 5.3% in 2017 due to an influx of investments linked to CPEC.
Pakistan was recently given positive feedback from international institutions such as IMF and the World Bank, as the Islamic nation has been regarded as a fast emerging economy.
CPEC is already more beneficial for Pakistan than friendship with U.S.
While a White House source recently dismissed reports that the Trump administration is considering adding Pakistan to the list of Muslim-majority countries facing visa restrictions, including the Islamic country would create further tensions between Washington and Islamabad.
Even if such plans are off the table now, can the U.S. and Pakistan enjoy ties as close as those between Beijing and Islamabad? Putting U.S.-Pak and China-Pak relations in perspective, CPEC can offer Pakistan much more than the country’s seven-decade cooperation with the U.S. ever has.
Over the years of their decades-long partnership, the U.S. has added over 2,400 megawatts to Pakistan’s electricity grid, according to the U.S. Department of State. With approximately $33 billion expected to be invested in CPEC’s energy projects, Pakistan’s energy-generating capacity is expected to reach over 10,400 megawatts between 2018 and 2020, according to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2014-15.
It is estimated that CPEC will create some 700,000 direct jobs between 2015 and 2030 and increase Pakistan’s growth rate to 2.5%. For the sake of comparison, the U.S. government has funded nearly 1,100 kilometers of roads in Pakistan over the years, while CPEC is basically a 3,218-kilometer long route consisting of highways, railways and pipelines.
Last year, Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Sun Weidong said bilateral trade between China and Pakistan reached $18.9 billion, while bilateral trade between the U.S. and Pakistan is standing at somewhere around $5.3 billion.