2018 US-Pak Relations: China’s Latest Challenge

Spearhead Analysis – 06.02.2018

By Shirin Naseer
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

President Donald Trump’s January 1st Tweet set the tone for US-Pak relations at the very beginning of the New Year. “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools,” Trump tweeted. He added: “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”

Trump’s Twitter outburst quickly translated into policy as the US announced that it will be holding back more than $1 billion in aid to Pakistan. Trump’s administration revealed it will be suspending $255 million in aid under the foreign military financing program and at least another $900 million in coalition support funds reimbursement. In doing so, the Trump administration also cited Pakistan as a “safe haven” for terrorists. It is expected that this move by the administration will affect about $1.3 billion in US aid to the country. Furthermore, the US Department of State, under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, reportedly announced Pakistan would be from then on treated as a country of “particular concern”—henceforth, putting it on a special watch list for “severe violations of religious freedom.”

Such measures by the US intended to condition Pakistan’s choices are not new. Similar measures were taken during the Obama administration, for instance, when the US withheld $800 million in Coalition Support Reimbursement (CSR) payments.

The effectiveness of such step in present times is however debatable. Having been through a similar ordeal before, Pakistan is aware of the unreliability of US aid. Blocking US supply routes to Afghanistan is one way Islamabad may retaliate.

For China however the current state of affairs may prove problematic on several grounds. Rocky Pak-US relations and the decline in US aid for Pakistan can be far from within Chinese interests or plans for the region.

With deteriorating Pak-US relations, the US may shift its focus more closely now than ever before on Pak-China ties. This may not sit well with Beijing since it already has a difficult relationship with the US—with disagreements on a wide range of issues such as those related to the South China Sea. The US Department of Defense (DoD)’s 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) also made clear the Trump’s administration aggressive attitude toward China when the document singled China, together with Russia, out as “central challenges to US prosperity and security.” If the China-Pak relationship comes under US focus it could potentially further strain US-China ties, since the US may make moves to curb Chinese ambitions and future China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) related progress in Pakistan.

Furthermore, as US-Pak relations weaken, the US may get more freedom to manage its relations with India, now without the pressure of keeping in mind Islamabad’s interests. The US recently announced that in line with its military strategy its military commanders have been authorized to carry out operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This obviously translates into cross border actions from Afghan soil against Pakistan in pursuit of the Taliban whom the US has been battling for the last sixteen years. General Kenneth McKenzie, however, stated that the US has no intention to carry out operations in Pakistan. A United States keen on keeping a balance between its relations with India and Pakistan is preferred by Beijing, especially since it limits the ways in which Washington and New Delhi can deepen their alliance. India has made its anti-CPEC sentiments clear. Without the need to balance between the two regional rivals, the US may feel free to work towards making it difficult for China to pursue its interests with regards to enhancing the OBOR. For Pakistan too such developments can prove incredibly damaging. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in all likelihood will be huge for Pakistan’s economy and development, but gains from CPEC may not be enough to make up for US contributions.

Either way, the US-Pakistan relationship it seems is not set for a smooth year. The central problem for Washington has for long been persuading Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment to bring its interests in line with those of the United States; this would involve playing an active role in stabilizing Afghanistan and maintaining stability at the disputed border with India. Furthermore, after Trumps ‘no talks’ tweet the Taliban have ramped up operations with deadly devastating attacks in Kabul. The Taliban announced their response with these words—“ The Islamic Emirate has a clear message for Trump and his hand kissers that if you go ahead with a policy of aggression and speak from the barrel of a gun, don’t expect Afghans to grow flowers in response”. US strategy seems to be going back sixteen years. The US wants Pakistan to take its counter-terrorism obligations more seriously. In order to ensure this, the US is willing to put in place harsh policies. Whatever the impact of this will be on the US’s relationship with Pakistan, China is likely to be watching with great concern for its own interests in relation to the US-Pakistan alliance. China in pursuit of its own interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan may decide to play a major role in building a regional consensus. After all China has a 90 kilometer border with Afghanistan and there are reports of a base being developed in the Wakhan Corridor area.