Switching Superpowers

Spearhead Analysis – 20.03.2014

By Shemrez Nauman Afzal
Research Advisor and Consultant (Security and Governance)
Spearhead Research – Pakistan

With the U.S. on the decline and China on the ascent both economically and militarily, should Pakistan change the hegemon to which it answers? Will it be possible? And how can it be done as a cornerstone of foreign policy and as an issue of public interest and sustainable development for Pakistan?

As far as Pakistan’s tacit official policy goes, the U.S. is – andhas been – thedominant global hegemon. But with China on a path of apparently unstoppable military, economic and geostrategic ascendancy, will Pakistan make the significant foreign policy shift of firmly situating itself in China’s “orbit” by decreasing its political and economic reliance on America? Is such a grand “volte face” even possible for Pakistan to make, or has the ongoing policy of “friendship with both, enmity towards neither” become a necessity for Pakistan? 

Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S. dates back to the 1950s. The founders of Pakistan shunned overtures by the erstwhile U.S.S.R. for a strategic alliance with America, which was later strengthened by military aid and cemented with partnerships like SEATO and CENTO. Even when Pakistan was facing the spectre of dismemberment in 1971, the good offices of then-President Yahya Khan actively facilitated the initiation of diplomatic relations between Richard Nixon’s White House and the People’s Republic of China – secret shuttle diplomacy by Henry Kissinger led to the “opening up” of China to the U.S. and to the Western world, which until then recognized Taiwan as China even in the United Nations Security Council. Pakistan’s role in the commencement of U.S.-China relations cannot be ignored or overlooked in any objective analysis: this “service” was rendered even though Pakistan was suffering from deep internal turmoil, and a civil war that led to an international military confrontation with India led to the birth of Bangladesh while neither the U.S. nor China came to East Pakistan’s aid militarily (China was effectively restrained by the U.S.S.R., while the U.S. sent a task force merely for the purpose of “optics” and could not stop continued Indian aggression).

But U.S.-Pakistan relations have also suffered in the past few years; this despite the fact that they found a new life and meaning after the 9/11 and when Pakistan was designated a “major non-NATO ally”. Continuing mutual distrust of each other’s military strategies and intelligence operations in Afghanistan – compounded by incidents such as the attack on Pakistan’s Salalacheckpost or the unilateral raid in Abbottabad in which Osama bin Laden was killed and his body whisked away for none to be seen – have contributed to a downward spiral in bilateral relations in the past 5 to 7 years. This unhealthy trend is also seen despite the fact that Pakistan and the U.S. have embarked upon a “strategic dialogue” so that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is based on sound, mutually beneficial partnerships in a variety of sectors and policy arenas other than just defence and foreign policy. While U.S. aid (both military and non-military) to Pakistan has increased from the 1990’s, it is also true that this bilateral aid has “more strings attached” than before: in the most recent NDAA bill (U.S. military appropriations budget), more requirements were attached to aid being given to Pakistan, with necessary certifications required from the U.S. Secretary of Defense before American aid can be disbursed to Pakistan.

On the other end of the spectrum, U.S.-India relations are seeing better days than they ever did. India was a firm ally of the U.S.S.R. even though its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, played an important role in the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). India had a strategic partnership with the Soviet Union since 1971, and both countries cooperated in many areas, including defence; the development of the Sukhoi Su-30MKI, a fifth-generation fighter jet, the Ilyushin/HAL tactical transport aircraft, and the supersonic BrahMos cruise missile highlight the steady growth and increasing depth of the Indo-Soviet (and now Indo-Russian) relationship in the defence sector alone.

With the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, India has gradually grown closer to the U.S. and has embarked on a strategic partnership (since 2009) that has yielded many gains, among which is the waiver from the NSG and the participation of – and collaboration with – U.S. firms for India’s nuclear energy power generation sector. This new proximity with the U.S. does not come at the expense of continuing Indo-Russian parternship in many areas of their decades-old bilateral relationship (as Russia eagerly plays the Soviet role in terms of its foreign policy even today), and despite serious questions being raised about India’s “independent foreign policy” even in the Lok Sabha, the U.S.-India parternship is justified by the strategic dimension of countering China’s assertiveness in Asia Pacific if not Central Asia (where India has failed, despite piggybacking on the U.S.). Ankit Panda of The Diplomat says that India has many “strategic partners” but no real allies, as it is “yet to officially define the objective standards for a strategic partnership”. Panda says that adding the “strategic” qualified or preamble to a “partnership” gives India a certain “beneficial ambiguity”, since India is a nation that has to shed its “non-aligned roots” to “experiment with comprehensive diplomatic engagement like never before”.

The U.S.-China relationship has yet to reach the level of Sino-Pak bilateral relations, which are “higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the oceans”: China refers to Pakistan as its “Israel”, which is considered a “heavily loaded” and “sarcastic” remark to American queries about China’s closeness with – and defense of – Pakistan and its policy actions. Pakistan is also jointly developing weapons systems with China, and has recently announced that it will invest US$30 billion in Pakistan’s energy sector. Regardless, it has been made clear in U.S. and Indian circles that China – which has a growing economic relationship with both these countries – is troubled and sometimes “makes China uncomfortable” when Pakistan invokes China on every matter. So while there is continuing support for Pakistan, China also has its limits. At the same time, while U.S.-India relations are growing and acquiring a certain “strategic convergence”, they are also downplaying their strategic partnership.

Pakistan’s main dependency on the U.S. for military hardware has long been surpassed by Chinese support and by Pakistan’s local weapons development and technological advancements. But the continuing dependency on international financial institutions (IFIs) run by Washington – in addition to U.S. aid – keep Pakistan in a kind of “leash” where it is bound to follow (officially at least) American policy for the region and for its internal affairs as well: this does not mean that Washington dictates Islamabad on how to run Pakistan, but it does mean that the IMF and World Bank can tell Pakistan to reduce government subsidies or control monetary policy in a certain way if it wants to continue receiving multilateral aid.

In this case, it has recently become apparent that in addition to China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are also financing Pakistan’s development budget as well as various other projects (most of which are joint ventures between Pakistan and one of these friendly countries). It remains to be seen whether financial support from these three countries can even balance out, much less outweigh, financial support that Pakistan receives from the Washington Consensus IFIs. The incumbent PML-N government has also launched a Pakistan Development Fund, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has already deposited a sum on US$ 1.5 billion into this fund. Apparently this fund is a resource pool for the infrastructural development of capital and equity markets in Pakistan.However, this also has ramifications for the independence of Pakistan’s own foreign policy: it has been continuously alleged that Saudi Arabia is urging Pakistan to support the Sunni kingdom’s stance on the Syrian civil war/crisis – as opposed to Iran – and to fund, train and arm Sunni Syrian rebels against the Shi’ite Alawite government of Bashar al-Assad – a vital Iranian ally. Angering Iran could have serious consequences for Pakistan, especially because Iran neighbours Pakistan along its troublesome Baluchistan province. Pakistan cannot afford to become entangled in these Shi’ite-Sunni proxy wars being fought between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Arab and Muslim world at large: it would be best if Pakistan continued on its nonaligned path in this affair and, in fact, played a mediatory and conciliatory role to bring both parties on the negotiating table rather than letting them continue to fight their wars behind the curtains of official foreign policy and overt diplomacy.

The global trend of America on the descent and China on the ascent – however certain and guaranteed – has a very slow pace, with the U.S. trying innovative ways and means to assert its unipolar superpower status despite its shrinking financial importance in the global economic marketplace (which has been now defined by America’s hypercapitalism and the use of the dollar as accepted global currency). At the same time, China is in no hurry to acquire a greater superpower status than it already has, or to unseat the U.S. and occupy the throne of being the “global policeman”: China has a New International Economic Order (NIEO) in which the Asian juggernaut believes in trade, not aid. China would much rather invest in projects in a developing or underdeveloped country, and share profits and gains, rather than follow the standard Western approach of providing aid through which it will receive both principal and interest payments (and thereby lock the recipient country into a chokehold of foreign debt repayments). China also follows its principled policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal matters: a proactive policy which keeps China away from the slippery slope of “meddling” into the affairs of other countries.

Eventually, it boils down to whether such a shift would even be viable for Pakistan to make – unless and until there is a severe implosion inside the U.S. (greater than the financial crisis of 2008) and there is a clear understanding that China, and not the U.S., is the global superpower in all matters. At that moment in international history, it would not be difficult for Pakistan to make such a shift, since it enjoys good relations with both U.S. and China, and better relations with the latter than it does with the former. In the meantime, closer Sino-Pak relations also make sense when one considers the growing U.S.-India relationship, particularly because America is bolstering India as its sponsored regional counterweight to China. China and India have fought a war in 1962 and still have border disputes despite their growing economic interdependence and mutual desire to resolve issues diplomatically rather than militarily. As America applauds India’s “Look East” policy so that it has a regional power to keep a “check” on China (as much as India can and is able to), it appears that this policy will also go the way of India’s efforts in Central Asia (where China outsmarted India in economic terms, while Pakistan continues its best to checkmate India in strategic security terms). Nevertheless, when the U.S. becomes tired and weary of being the global policeman – or is unable to play this role furthermore – it will also be easy for India to adopt warmer, more cordial relations with China, and adapt its foreign policy to one that is less confrontational with China than their “independent, sovereign” foreign policy is right now.

With the right kind of economic policies, and effective security policies that keep Pakistan secure internally and ensure border security as well as stability in neighbouring countries in the region, it does not matter whether Pakistan is more dependent on the U.S. or China, or less dependent on any of these superpowers. Pakistan should also look towards better relations with Russia, and Pakistan’s efforts to join the Russia-China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) would further cement Pakistan’s role in the South Asian region. It is ultimately the options (and limitations) of Pakistan’s political leaders, as well as the will of the people expressed at the ballot, that will decide the trajectory of Pakistan’s actual independence and sovereignty (that is, decreasing its dependence on other countries or multilateral organizations) and increase its effectiveness in terms of policymaking and policy implementation. To that end, Pakistan must adopt sound economic policies that will yield viable outcomes in the long-term (ten to twenty years) rather than the short term (three to five years), and it must make peace with all its neighbours in order to secure its economic growth and deal with its energy crisis – not to mention its crisis of insecurity and instability that an existential threat poses through the active involvement of a terrorist network in daily terror attacks against the citizens and state of Pakistan. Shifting superpowers will not be an issue as long as Pakistan itself is sure of its own self, its strengths and weaknesses, its advantages and shortcomings, and – most importantly – where it is on the right track and where it has to reject policies that put it on “the wrong track” and damage instead of benefit the nation-state.