Pakistan is entering a new era of relations with both China and Russia – no doubt about that – but what does it mean for relations with the U.S.?
One can argue that given the pace of Pakistan’s growing ties with Beijing and Moscow – Washington’s traditional and historic rivals – its relations with the U.S. can no longer go forward in a friendly direction. But Pakistan’s current stance in geopolitics is more complicated than that.
It has been a whirlwind couple of years for Islamabad and its foreign policy. Islamabad has been enjoying the rapid growth of economic and diplomatic ties with China, elevating relations to a level they have never seen in history. The regime of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has also been warming up to Russia, China’s most promising and formidable ally which, like China, has challenged the U.S. to shrink and limit its influence in the region.
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Islamabad has been soaking up the benefits of its ever-growing relations with China for decades – arms sales, joint projects both military and economic, across-the-board diplomatic support, etc. But in recent years, their relations have been spurred by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a joint regional development project that has created numerous business and economic opportunities for the two allies and could significantly improve connectivity in the region.
Pakistan-Russia relations have for decades been cold given the grievances between the two nations after the Cold War era, when Moscow and Islamabad had been in rival camps. In addition to that, Russia’s close ties to India, Pakistan’s biggest enemy, have for decades prevented Moscow and Islamabad from finally putting their past grievances behind them and shaking hands.
But a little less than three years ago, Russia officially ended its decades-long arms embargo against Pakistan, a move that drew ire from India, further improved ties with China and served as yet another confirmation that Pakistan has entered a new era in its foreign policy.
Are Pakistan-U.S. relations doomed to end because of Russia and China?
Not that Islamabad wasn’t aware of it, but standing with Moscow and Beijing as one, united front has plagued its relations with Washington. There are several factors that could explain the downward trend in U.S.-Pakistan relations, such as the U.S. seeking closer ties to India; China’s discontent with friendly Pakistan-U.S. ties; Pakistan seeking closer ties to Russia; Washington accusing Islamabad of sheltering terrorist elements; and the U.S. electing President Donald Trump, whose administration to this very day hasn’t outlined a clear policy for Asia.
But Pakistan’s new ambassador to the U.S. argues that his country’s recent efforts to seek closer diplomatic and economic ties with both China and Russia do not represent the opening salvos of “a zero sum game” with the U.S. Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry admitted to reporters on Friday that close Pakistan-U.S. ties remain an issue of “critical importance” to Islamabad.
The ambassador, however, stressed that Pakistan’s improved relations with Beijing and Moscow is not only in their mutual bilateral interests but also in the interest of the U.S., which Pakistan still considers an ally despite apparent difficulties in finding common ground lately. One can argue that Pakistan and China’s acceptance of Russia’s invitation to hold trilateral talks on Afghanistan without inviting the U.S. to be part of the talks served as a yet another sign of cold U.S.-Pakistan ties. It was that meeting which gave birth to the speculation that the three nations may be plotting a Syria-like intervention on Afghan soil.
Pakistan has much bigger role in geopolitics
The Trump administration may see Pakistan’s attempts to get closer to China as a negative or even hostile gesture toward the U.S. This is especially true given Trump’s apparent discontent with some of China’s foreign policies, including trade and its actions in the disputed South China Sea. He has also accused the country of being a currency manipulator and questioned the One China policy.
Their friendship, however, has been put to the test numerous times in the past few years, such as when the U.S. openly hinted that Pakistan could be sheltering terrorist groups on its soil or when Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama started seeking closer ties with India, its biggest enemy, to apparently use New Delhi as a means to bring down China’s growing influence in the region and upset its plans in the South China Sea.
If Pakistan gets particularly close to China, it could be a major obstacle for the weakening partnership with Washington. However, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. argues that Islamabad’s growing ties to Beijing could actually become a bridge for U.S. relations with China.
“We can serve as that bridge,” Mr. Chaudhry insisted, explaining that Pakistan’s emerging friendship with China shouldn’t be viewed as an obstacle to U.S. relations.
Is Russia abandoning India to be closer to Pakistan?
It’s yet unclear how the Trump administration sees Pakistan’s emerging friendship with Russia, as the U.S. President and his team have given conflicting opinions about Russia and its President Vladimir Putin so far. However, it’s clear that growing Russia-Pakistan ties are creating serious obstacles for Moscow’s relations with India.
Last year, Russia held its first-ever joint military drills with Islamabad, a move that prompted India to slam the Russian government and its growing security ties with Islamabad. Moscow also refused to back India’s claims that terrorism is emanating from Pakistani soil. In addition, Moscow didn’t even invite India for its trilateral Afghanistan talks with China and Pakistan earlier this year.
In fact, while Russia remains India’s key weapons supplier, Moscow recently started selling arms to Pakistan, something no one could predict just few years ago given the decades-long tight military and security partnership between India and Russia.
But new developments in Pakistan-Russia relations indicate that the world is rapidly changing, and so are Pakistan’s foreign policies and priorities. Only time will tell if Pakistan’s close partnerships with Russia and China will create tensions in relations with the U.S. or if Islamabad could really become that “bridge.”