Washington: Pakistani leaders often wax lyrical about their “sweeter than honey” relations with all-weather friend China. There’s no romance about their marriage of convenience with America.
As the Trump administration plots its policy toward a key partner, it will find Pakistan being drawn deeper into Beijing’s embrace and its promise of $46 billion in energy, infrastructure and industry investments by 2030. The money could transform the Muslim nation’s economy.
Washington, by contrast, is losing faith in how much its largesse can influence Pakistan. Many frustrated US policymakers see Pakistan as a terrorist haven that some $30 billion in security and economic assistance since the 9/11 attacks has failed to fix.
But an American retreat could have broad implications for its ability to maintain stability in a regional powder keg of extremism, weak governance and various potential conflicts. “I get the sense that we are the dispensable ally once again,” Bilalwal Bhutto, a Pakistani opposition party leader and son of the slain former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, said during a recent visit to Washington.
US assistance to Pakistan has been declining since 2011 when American commandos killed Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan, straining relations. And as the US troop presence in neighbouring Afghanistan has shrunk, Pakistan has become a lower priority.
Aid could decline further as President Donald Trump proposes drastic cuts to diplomacy and foreign aid budgets. Still, Trump’s vow to protect America from violent extremism may make it difficult for him to turn his back on Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation where al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is suspected to be hiding and which could hold the key to an Afghan peace settlement.
The 8,500 US troops still deployed in Afghanistan means the US retains a high interest in seeing Pakistan rein in cross-border attacks by Taliban militants, whatever Washington’s larger regional objectives may be. China is also concerned about militancy in Pakistan, particularly by ethnic Uighur groups that have reportedly sought refuge in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region and forged links with al-Qaida and the Taliban.
But above all, China sees strategic and economic opportunities in Pakistan. The unlikely alliance is a critical part of China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” project to link markets in Asia and Europe. Pakistan’s offer of access to the Indian Ocean could reduce China’s reliance on the chokepoint of the Malacca Strait in Southeast Asia for oil imports from the Mideast, and help spur development in China’s land-locked far west.