The multipolar moment has arrived in Pakistan’s backyard. Last month, China made its foray into Middle East diplomacy by brokering the Iran-Saudi Arabia normalization agreement. And India continues to boldly push forward with transactional, selective alignments, maintaining its close partnership with Russia, while also engaging the United States to deter and counter China.
Pakistan too is attempting its own geopolitical rebalancing. It seeks to revive ties with the United States and other Western countries. This pivot to the West comes after an earlier one to the East that began more than a decade ago. But, like the previous pivot, Pakistan’s efforts to rekindle ties with the West are unlikely to succeed unless it embraces the imperatives of economic reform and political stability.
Pakistan’s squandered Eastern pivot
The year 2011 was a low point in U.S.-Pakistan relations. It began with the killing of two young Pakistanis by a Central Intelligence Agency contractor, who was then detained for nearly two months. Then came the Abbottabad raid in May, when U.S. special forces killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Ladin. The unilateral U.S. operation in northern Pakistan not only embarrassed the Pakistan government and army, but also reignited accusations of Pakistani perfidy in Washington. The year concluded with the killing of over two dozen Pakistani soldiers by NATO forces at the Salala border post near Afghanistan.
In response, Pakistan shut down the NATO supply route into Afghanistan for seven months. It also intensified counterintelligence operations targeting the U.S. intelligence community. The U.S. engaged in its own parallel campaign here at home.
At the same time, Pakistan’s traditionally Western-centric national security elite moved to deepen their partnership with China, already a longtime partner. The two countries accelerated their defense partnership — including the joint production of the JF-17 fighter jet and increased joint exercises — resulting in what Sameer Lalwani of the U.S. Institute of Peace argues is now a “threshold alliance.” The “latent capacity of the China-Pakistan military partnership,” Lalwani writes, “allows the option of burden sharing and interoperability in a crisis.”
Alongside the growing defense partnership came a new dimension to the relationship: the economy. In 2015, the two countries launched a bilateral segment of the Belt and Road Initiative known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Like the defense tilt, it brought some early dividends in the form of foreign direct investment (FDI) — roughly $20 billion in projects in its first phase, mainly in the electric power sector.
CPEC provided Pakistan with a shot in the arm when foreign investors shied away from the country due to security risks. It also offered a potential framework for driving economic growth and regional connectivity untied to a U.S.- or India-centric strategic architecture. Notionally, Pakistan could rapidly address infrastructure capacity deficiencies, providing its industries with the means to produce and get their goods out into the world.
But Pakistani elites squandered the opportunity. They pushed forward poorly-negotiated projects based on electoral timelines without consideration for Pakistan’s ability to afford and leverage that newly installed capacity. And as CPEC-related imports grew, Pakistan’s exports actually declined, thanks in part to the government’s pegging of the exchange rate.
The combination resulted in uneven growth, a balance of payments crisis, and an imbalanced economic partnership. The privileging of Chinese FDI crowded out investors from other countries. And Pakistani officials proposed poor solutions, such as creating a U.S. zone within CPEC. Meanwhile, Pakistani officials — including in the army — came to realize that Beijing simply wouldn’t write off their debts. As arrears to Chinese electric power producers mounted, Beijing insisted that they be repaid — while also providing short-term emergency lending to Islamabad.
The reverse pivot
Since 2011, Pakistan had also expanded relations with other middle and great powers, including Turkey and Russia. And the strategic partnership with China gained even more importance after India’s annexation of the disputed region in Kashmir in 2019 and Sino-Indian clashes along their shared frontier in 2020. The prospects of a two-front war have blunted New Delhi’s belligerence toward Islamabad since the China-India frontier has heated up.
But Pakistan’s dependence on China in both the economic and military domains began to weigh on the Pakistan Army. So too did Washington’s snubbing. Culturally oriented toward the West, commanders of the Pakistan Army and Pakistani elites in general relish in the spectacle of visits from senior U.S. officials and dignitaries.
In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, fearful that Washington had truly moved on from the region, efforts by the Pakistan Army to reach out to the Biden administration accelerated.
By late 2021, the U.S. and Pakistan began to pursue a reset in the relationship. While U.S. officials have set realistic expectations for the reset, focusing on non-strategic, low-hanging fruit, Pakistani officials appear unable to accept the new, limited terms of the relationship.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari recently completed his fifth visit to the U.S. in the past year. During a visit in December, Zardari spent 10 days in the U.S. and only managed to speak with Secretary of State Antony Blinken by phone, though the two men were both in Washington. By comparison, Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval made a brief scheduled visit to Washington earlier this year, meeting with at least three cabinet members as well as senior military officials, including the chairman of the joint chiefs.
The Pakistan Army appears desperate to gain the attention of Washington, using third parties to convey the danger that it could fall victim to the "Chinese debt trap." An analyst, citing unnamed Pakistani officials, even spoke of Chinese requests to make a port call at Gwadar — home to a Chinese-operated port and long speculated as a potential future Chinese naval base. This counterproductive messaging — likely the result of the army ignoring the advice of the country’s diplomats — could damage its relationship with Beijing.
Troubles back home are also alienating a key booster of U.S.-Pakistan cooperation: the Pakistani diaspora. In response to the crackdown on former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party, Pakistani-American advocacy groups are now mobilizing members of Congress to issue statements against human rights violations in Pakistan.
Economic reform creates real strategic depth
Pakistan’s rulers are right to seek to correct the imbalances in their relationship with Beijing. But they must come to terms with Washington’s indifference to their strategic predicament.
Case in point, a new report by the Center for a New American Security recommends that in the event of an India-China border flare-up, the U.S. should “be prepared to extend full support to India” and convey to Pakistan “the need to stay neutral.” Why would Pakistan stay neutral after India, its archrival, unilaterally annexed Kashmir? After all, it is this act and New Delhi’s subsequent bluster that were among the drivers of the Chinese incursions into Indian-claimed territory in 2020.
What Pakistan must learn is that the nations that are making the most of this multipolar moment are doing so because of their respective economic strengths. Saudi Arabia is flush with cash and India, while a lower-middle-income country, is a huge market coveted by U.S. investors. Both are able to attract Fortune 500 CEOs and titans of finance at forums in their countries, even as they butt heads with the U.S. on oil prices or human rights.
Pakistan must grow past seeking the extraction of geopolitical rents. It should shield itself from emerging geopolitical divides while focusing on domestic economic reform and human development. Pakistan is a large country — the world’s fifth-largest in population. If and once Pakistan puts itself on the path of sustainable growth, visitors will come to it and Pakistani officials won’t have to sit in Washington waiting for a phone call.
Arif Rafiq is the president of Vizier Consulting LLC, a political risk advisory company focused on the Middle East and South Asia, and a non-resident scholar at MEI.
Photo by EDUARDO MUNOZ/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
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