ISLAMABAD — Pakistan is locked in an intense debate over its future diplomatic direction, after a recent cable leak exposed the government’s inclination to go all-in with China.
Experts say Islamabad has grown fed up with a perceived lack of support from the U.S., as the South Asian country wrestles with an economic crisis that has brought it to the brink of debt default. But at the same time, observers say the leaks highlight divisions between Pakistan’s civilian leadership and its powerful military, which typically prefers to balance ties with the rival superpowers.
The controversy blew up late last month, triggered by media revelations of an internal Pakistani government memo — part of the leaks on the gaming platform Discord that sent shock waves through the U.S. security establishment.
Written by Hina Rabbani Khar, Islamabad’s minister of state for foreign affairs, and titled “Pakistan’s Difficult Choices,” the memo argued that the nation “can no longer try to maintain a middle ground between China and the United States.”
Khar argued that “Islamabad should avoid giving the appearance of appeasing the West. The instinct to preserve Pakistan’s partnership with the United States would ultimately sacrifice the full benefits of the country’s real strategic partnership with China.”
Beijing has invested billions in Pakistan under its Belt and Road Initiative. But since late last year, the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had also shown an eagerness to repair ties with the U.S. Now the leaks — which the government has yet to deny, in what many consider a tacit admission — have spotlighted a defining question of Pakistani diplomacy.
“Pakistan is deliberating moving further closer to China,” a Pakistani government official privy to such discussions told Nikkei Asia, on condition of anonymity. “However, this has not been fully decided as of now.”
The leak was reported days before Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s trip to Pakistan last week. “China is also ready to help Pakistan revive its economy and improve people’s well-being,” Qin said in a press statement during his visit. For his part, Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said: “China can always count on Pakistan as its most reliable partner and trusted friend. Friendship with China is the cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy.”
Pakistan’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar, right, who apparently wrote the leaked memo, stands with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang as well as Russia’s Sergey Lavrov and Iran’s Hossein Amir-Abdollahian at a meeting in Uzbekistan in mid-April. © Russian Foreign Ministry via Reuters
It remains unclear how Khar’s memo ended up in U.S. hands in the first place. Mosharraf Zaidi, CEO of Islamabad think tank TabadLab, said that all leaks are strategic and designed to achieve larger objectives. “Here, the objective is to prompt Pakistan to issue reactions and denials of an allegedly new approach,” he said.
Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, explained that there is a disconnect between Pakistan’s diplomats and military brass when it comes to balancing relations with Washington and Beijing. “The latter very much wants to walk a middle path, whereas the country’s diplomats often feel negative about relations with the U.S.”
Several factors contribute to that negativity.
While South Asian neighbors Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have secured financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund in recent months, Pakistan has been unable to complete its ninth review agreement with the fund, which would unlock lending the country desperately needs to stay afloat.
The IMF has insisted on assurances of financial support from Pakistan’s partners, including China and Saudi Arabia, as well as genuine economic reforms. Islamabad insists it has met the requirements, but the lender remains noncommittal. “The IMF continues to work with the Pakistani authorities to bring the ninth review to conclusion once the necessary financing is in place and the agreement is finalized,” Reuters quoted mission chief Nathan Porter as saying on Friday.
A U.S. diplomat based in Islamabad, who also requested anonymity, stressed that contrary to popular belief, the U.S. has no influence on IMF decisions.
But, rightly or wrongly, the Pakistani government official who spoke to Nikkei said Islamabad had “expected help from Washington on convincing the IMF to sign the deal.”
“We were let down,” the official said.
Experts cite other disappointments as well.
Fakhar Kakakhel, an independent analyst specializing in militancy in Pakistan, said that the U.S. and the West left behind a mess in neighboring Afghanistan, when their forces withdrew in August 2021 and the Taliban seized power. He said Pakistan expected their support to stabilize the region, which unfortunately was not provided.
“Therefore, technically speaking, it is the U.S. and the West who have disengaged from Pakistan,” Kakakhel argued. This, he said, leaves Pakistan no other option but to rely on “all-weather friend” China.
The U.S. did signal to Pakistan late last year that it would help counter resurgent militant threats.
Taliban forces patrol near the entrance of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport after U.S troops withdrew in August 2021. © Reuters
Experts have mixed opinions on how a more overt move by Pakistan into the pro-Beijing camp would affect regional diplomacy.
Kakakhel said that during similar economic crises in the past, Pakistan managed to address its issues with the support of China and Saudi Arabia. If these countries draw closer together, “this may ring alarm bells in Washington, and the U.S. may become irrelevant in the process.”
Others are not ready to write off ties with the U.S., regardless of any pivot to China.
Zaidi from Tabadlab said no country is better placed than Pakistan to show it is both possible and desirable to stay close to both Beijing and Washington. “The bonus here is that, unlike many other countries, Western powers are likely to be most comfortable in engaging with Pakistan as their way of engaging with the SCO forum,” he added, referring to the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization — a grouping of mainly South and Central Asian states that held a round of foreign minister meetings in India last week.
“I don’t think this alone will alienate Washington,” the Quincy Institute’s Weinstein said, emphasizing that the Pakistani elite has deeper connections with the U.S. than with China. “Washington can actually demonstrate strength by not asking countries to take sides.”
Source : NikkeiAsia