The visit of the American secretary of state to the region in October generated contrasting reports, none more than those from Islamabad and New Delhi. Now that the dust has settled, it is time to move beyond the optics and peer behind the public announcements made by the principal actors. While there was coherence between secretary Rex Tillerson’s official statement after talks in India with those attributed to “sources who were present in the meeting,” the divergence is stark in press reports datelined Islamabad.
The Dawn of Pakistan wrote that foreign minister Khwaja Asif briefed their Senate that Americans were told, “Pakistan does not want any military hardware, economic resources or material gain from Washington. Rather, Pakistan wants a relationship based on equality with the US.”
That, coming from a state that has been bailed out over the years by the US, is indeed brow-raising. That there were no one-on-one meetings, but a combined civil-army Pakistan delegation that dialogued with the Americans, was rich in symbolism.
Fast forward to Indian reports quoting “sources” in Delhi that while in Islamabad, “Tillerson did not pull any punches,” and “a stern message has been given” to Pakistan.
Where lies the truth and what has given Pakistan leadership such confidence that secretary Tillerson was received at the airport by a junior foreign service officer? The days of Pakistan being run by the three As — Army, Allah and America — seem to be undergoing a metamorphosis!
Indeed, the tenor of statements conveys that Pakistan considers itself the new manipulator in town, the targets being the US, Russia and, in future, China, with India not being on stage. As Dawn quoted from the Asif brief in the Senate, “There will only be room for improvement if Washington accepts their defeat, their failures in Afghanistan. They are not ready to accept this.”
This in-your-face stance and the new found confidence is due to four reasons. First, an improvement in law and order indicated by the slow resumption of international cricketing ties; that a Sri Lankan eleven, a team an attack on whom resulted in foreign teams not visiting Pakistan, would be the first national team to play in Lahore is emblematic.
Second, an improvement in economic performance with GDP at five per cent, and supposedly rising to six per cent in the coming years. Third, a greater assertion of the military post the exit of Nawaz Sharif, where there is continuity of thought, policy, and plans, as against the periodically uprooted civilian government(s). Last, and most important, perhaps an assessment in Pakistan that its acquiescence to CPEC now could, in time to come, actually make China indebted to it. A far-fetched idea? Read-on.
Recent geo-political events show that, over passage of time, many benefactors become beholden to their clients due the interdependence that develops during the period — this later converts to major dependence. Nixon opened up to Mao to isolate USSR but the American economy became so dependent on China’s factories that, two decades later, Presidents Bush and Clinton turned a blind eye to China’s human rights record while giving the annual clearance to Congress for continuation of its MFN status.
Why go far?
Due its geo-strategic location, the US looked the other way vis-a-vis Pakistan’s tango with terrorist organisations and showered military and economic aid to turn Afghanistan into USSR’s Vietnam; the same terrorists returned to bite the US in 9/11 but Pakistan’s location has created such a dependency for logistic supplies for US troops in Afghanistan that the Americans cannot coerce Islamabad sufficiently. Similarly, for geo-political reasons, Russia too is cosying up to Pakistan which played the major role in its Afghanistan disaster.
So, where is the link between CPEC and Pakistan’s new found confidence?
In the coming years, the fast developing US-Japan-Vietnam-Australia-India consort, as also the resurrection of the “quad,” would make Malacca even more of a dilemma for its energy imports, rendering the $60 billion CPEC a critical energy and communication link for Beijing.
The alternate one for China through Myanmar, too, would be similarly threatened by the naval tango that is burgeoning between the Indian and other navies. Where would that leave Pakistan? Nuclear-capable Islamabad could then not be as beholden to China as it is now; Beijing may find it difficult to influence its client, just the way Pyongyang is refusing to tow the line after having extracted nuclear and economic benefits from it.
Pakistan’s belligerence being witnessed now could be the first signal of an emerging puppeteer. Islamabad has perfected the art of manipulating Western thinking by pulling nuclear and terrorist strings; the Chinese investment in, and its dependence on CPEC, could actually constitute a new string in that expert puppeteer’s hands.