US-China Rivalry In South Asia: What Options Are Available For Pakistan? – OpEd


After the dismemberment of its arch enemy on ideological, economic, and military fronts, “the former Soviet Union, now China, North Korea and Russia represent the three most significant challenges to the US interests in the Asia Pacific region and the South China Sea, as well as to the homeland. All three countries are nuclear powers, but U.S. interaction with these countries varies greatly.

The U.S. has no diplomatic or official economic interaction with North Korea, while China is one of the US’s top trading partners but at the same time, China is a competitor and rival because China is an economic powerhouse and fully engaged globally. Russia is economically weak with limited international engagement except Ukraine war and NATO’s involvement in that war.

In such a transitional period of world order, Pakistan has been affected and is being affected not only by the US-China rivalry but also by the Russian-Ukrainian war and the development taking place on its both eastern and western boundaries.

The US appears to be following an essentially three-pronged containment strategy concerning its competitor and rival China in the India-Pacific region and the South China Sea.

  1. At the geopolitical level, it seeks to isolate China and constrict its expanding sphere of influence in the region. The US is in alliances with countries comprising the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Australia, India, Japan, and the US) and AUKUS (Australia-UK-US), the two most important mini-lateral security arrangements in the Indo-Pacific. 
  1. At the geostrategic level, the US is reimagining and reconstructing the strategic architecture in the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR)-South Asia. Its intent to encircle China is evident by reinforcing the military capabilities and capacities of its allies; India, Japan, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Pacific Islands, and NATO countries. The US-India Strategic Partnership thus emerges as an essential and critical aspect of the US’ grand strategic design for the containment of China.
  1. At the geoeconomic level, it intends to stunt China’s rampant economic surge by limiting its access to international markets, restricting trade, and countering its rampaging Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). The U.S. believes that the BRI is not only an economic initiative but also a political and strategic one that aims to reshape the global order in China’s favor. The U.S. is concerned that the BRI could enable China to gain access to critical resources, markets, technologies, and military bases in strategic locations. The U.S. is also worried that the BRI could erode its influence and credibility in regions where it has invested heavily. 

The recent initiation of IMEC is an alternative to the BRI of China comprising India, USA, Saudi Arabia, UAE, European Union, Italy, France, and Germany. The IMEC aims to bolster economic development by fostering connectivity and economic integration between Asia, the Arabian Gulf, and Europe. The IMEC comprises of an Eastern Corridor connecting India to the Gulf region and a Northern Corridor connecting the Gulf region to Europe. It could also challenge China’s dominance and influence in these regions. 

The IMEC could increase the competition between the U.S. and China for markets, resources, and influence in these regions. The U.S. could use the IMEC as a platform to showcase its leadership role and its commitment to its allies and partners. The U.S. has also sought to counter China’s influence by strengthening its alliances and partnerships, promoting its vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and imposing tariffs and sanctions on Chinese goods and entities. 

Pakistan is stuck between deep water and hard rock

The geostrategic situation in the China-India-Pakistan sub-region is however extremely complex. China has improved its military capacities enormously to create strategic balance with the US-led West and its allies. India thus feels constrained to bolster its own economic and military prowess to maintain strategic balance with China, consequently, Pakistan gets alarmed at India’s growing military clout and moves to restore strategic balance in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. 

Today, The US rivalry with China is essentially two-tiered; one aimed at maintaining America’s technological and military superiority, the other at ensuring a level playing field in economic competition. The US does not need to go to war to maintain its technological and military superiority. It is doing so by denying high technology, especially the type that can limit China’s capability for AI and military advancement.

The US-China rivalry may be all-encompassing but at its core is economic competition. Washington is worried by China’s deepening economic inroads globally and its assertive military posture in the region. China has an edge in geo-economics, America in geopolitics and military power.

Furthermore, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) are two competing visions of global development that reflect the changing geopolitical landscape of the 21st century. They both have their impacts and implications for the political and economic relations between China and the U.S. particularly for Pakistan. Most recently, Pakistan and China vowed to cement their “all-weather” and “robust” ties right from 1947 till date, most recent and relevant is the Chief of the Army Staff General Asim Munir stated that PLA and Pakistan Army were brothers in arms and “our relationship will continue to contribute towards safeguarding our collective interests”. In the shifting geo-political order, Pakistan continues to be one of China’s closest allies.

On the other hand, Pakistan historically has been a closed ally of the US during the Cold War era, remained in US military alliances, and major recipient of military and economic aid in place of the containment policies of the US against the former Soviet Union till its dismemberment in the year 1989. Pakistan’s close relations with the US have historically been a function of geopolitics (1954 to 1965 and 1979 to 1990) or issues relating to US and global security (2001 to 2011), particularly becoming frontline state again after the 9/11on the behest of US but bilateral relationship between Pakistan and the US after hastily withdrawal from Afghanistan and returning of Taliban has become bumpy, needs to become normal but it should not be on the cost of Pakistan’s relations with its close and natural ally China. A strong and normal relationship of Pakistan with the US and China is beneficial for the region but this normality cannot be achieved without Pakistan itself becoming a normal country.

Though Pakistan is moving away from geopolitics to geo-economics in reality, Geopolitics remains the guiding principle of Pakistan-US relations. Cooperation is still possible in areas such as stabilization of Afghanistan and counterterrorism. The US feels that continued Afghan conflict will keep insurgency and terrorism alive, and would not only threaten its security but by fuelling extremism in Pakistan.

The US-China rivalry and its impact on Pakistan 

What affects Pakistan most is the US-China rivalry. How will all this impact Pakistan? Our strategic relationship with China is necessary but insufficient to address our economic and security challenges. We also need the US, an important bilateral economic partner that has traditionally been a valuable security provider. Washington has been unreliable but remains relevant to Pakistan’s needs given our limited alternatives. Regardless, an alienated America can harm Pakistan directly or through India.

Pakistan is relevant to Washington as a partner in regional security as well as a potential spoiler in geopolitical competition. As long as Pakistan meets Washington’s desired ends without compromising its interests it will not come under pressure to choose between the US and China.

But the situation might change if the economic equation becomes overly weighted in China’s favor, and the US-China competition becomes a virtual ‘hand-to-hand fight’. Pakistan — especially if it is no longer needed by Washington and is also seen as helping China undermine vital US economic or geopolitical interests, for instance, in any military use of Gwadar by Beijing — may then be asked by the US, or even by China, to choose.

Options available for Pakistan

Pakistan faces a complex set of economic and strategic challenges, making it essential for the country to balance its relations with both the US and China. However, state institutions must carefully assess and evaluate the risks associated with failing to maintain this equilibrium.

Pakistan has long been concerned about America’s strategic and geo-economic partnership with India. It aims for a moderate level of engagement with the US, largely because of its dependence on defense and textile exports, but also because of the need for geopolitical balance. While Islamabad’s policymakers generally favor closer ties with the US, this preference raises concerns for China. Nonetheless, the partnership between the US and Pakistan is mutually beneficial and entails minimal costs — financial, trade-related, strategic, or political.

Pakistan seeks to avoid an armed conflict with India, a stance that aligns well with US interests. The US has often played a role in defusing tensions between the two nations, While China has been a mediator in other regional tensions, such as between Saudi Arabia and Iran, its ability to act impartially in the intricate relationship between Pakistan and India is questionable.

In a web of complex US-China rivalry followed by US- Indian strategic and economic partnership, the US active engagement in the Russia-Ukrainian war and its interests in CAS and Afghanistan to counter Chinese influence has pushed Pakistan into a quagmire. Pakistan can maintain equilibrium in its relations with both countries successfully without compromising its National interests provided Pakistan first keeps its own house in order by bringing political stability, economic prosperity, National cohesion, and good governance to the country.

Political stability means true, inclusive, and functional democratic dispensation instead of the hybrid artificially articulated political system, through free, fair, and transparent elections. Strict adherence to the constitution, federalism, liberalism, and modernization in the education and health system. Non-political interventions, be they coups or extra-legal judicial pronouncements. The solution to having a bad surgeon is not to invite an engineer to perform surgery. The nation must be given fair and uninterrupted chances to replace bad politicians with good ones. The establishment’s Trying to push popular politicians out of the game while creating new ones in a very artificial way has divided the nation without solving their problems. 

Pakistan’s economic woes are increasing daily, the country is in its tipping point crisis where it should decide to remain a laggard with 40 percent population living below the poverty line under elite capture and policy decisions driven by strong vested interests of the military, and political and business leaders or change course to take off for a brighter future. poverty reduction has reversed, Inflation is at record highs, the rupee has depreciated sharply and foreign exchange reserves remain at precariously low levels. Pakistan is heavily exposed to climate change. Economic prosperity can be achieved by overhauling the whole economic system through drastic structural reforms, and by reducing the scourge of corruption including the end of elite capture and state capture of the economy. 

The nation is badly divided on religious, ethnic, sectarian, and social lines. Cracks in social infrastructure are widening day by day, therefore, a grand National dialogue for National cohesion is urgently needed. For this purpose, all stakeholders should put their heads together and resolve their grievances through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is high time for serious introspection and admission of mistakes that have driven the country to the edge of the stiff rock. The state of intolerance, violence, apathy, anger, lawlessness,despondency and resurgence of terrorist activities in Balochistan and Khyber Pashtunkhawa provinces is tearing us apart as a nation. All institutions of the state and those at the helm must stand together then the country will be in a position to safeguard its National interests while maintaining its relations with both the US and China as an independent and sovereign nation.

Sher Khan Bazai

Sher Khan Bazai is a retired civil servant, and a former Secretary of Education in Balochistan, Pakistan. He can be reached at [email protected].

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