Khan’s politics has reduced geopolitical space for PakistanEjaz Haider
10TH APR, 2022. 10:15 AM
The tenuous balance Pakistan was trying to create in a world spiralling into peer competition, alliance politics and rival blocs has been nearly destroyed because of the kinks of domestic politics. From hereon, regaining that balance, if at all, will not only be greatly difficult, it might prove well-nigh impossible.
But before we get to what has happened and why, it is instructive to cast a glance at what’s happening in the world and what kind of challenges the country faces.
Since Donald Trump’s presidential tenure, relations between the United States and China have moved from wary engagement and rivalry to near-adversarial competition. The shift that began with Trump has continued under President Joe Biden’s administration and is underpinned by bipartisan support. In other words, this trend will continue both for reasons that inhere in the structures of great power rivalry as also because of other developments.
One such development, violent, is Russia-Ukraine war. While it might appear that the ongoing conflict hogs the policy attention and news cycles and attention has diverted from US-China rivalry, the ultimate result of the war would be to further cement alliances and bloc geopolitics and return China to sharper salience.
Reason: the war has served to give fillip to a broader and broadening Western alliance at three levels: one, states that did not join the US-led NATO even during the Cold War — Sweden, Finland — have expressed interest in being part of that military alliance. On April 6, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that “NATO would quickly welcome Finland and Sweden into its ranks with open arms if they decided to apply.”
Two, the European Union has realised that interstate war can come to Europe, as it has, and the bloc has acted with great cohesion. This has resulted in lessening appeal for Eurosceptic parties, fiscal relaxation with reference to defence spending and gradual weaning off from Russian energy supplies through proposals such as REPowerEU, a three-step plan to reduce “Russian energy imports by 65 percent over the remainder of this year and completely before 2030.”
Three, EU has emerged as a strong bloc in its own right in two areas where it has traditionally followed the US: foreign policy and security. This trend will likely continue, especially with reference to boosting European military capabilities and EU’s more assertive approach to foreign policy, singly and in tandem with the U.S.
While Russia’s aggression has helped catalyse these developments and the current focus is on Kremlin, this newfound European cohesion and a realisation that Europe must be prepared for conflict will also impact EU-China relations. This was on display at the virtual summit last week between top EU diplomats and Chinese leadership. Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the afternoon session with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell.
Earlier in the day, the EU representatives also spoke with Li Keqiang, premier of China’s state council. Li said that China “opposes division of blocs and taking sides” and is pushing for peace “in its own way.” Von der Leyen was reported as saying that “We made very clear [that] China should not interfere with our sanctions” and Beijing’s support for Russia “would lead to major reputational damage” for China in Europe. “The European Commission chief said that the EU had not received any explicit assurances from China on the matter.”
This is, however, just one aspect. The much-hailed December 2020 EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), which was principally agreed to but awaits ratification and has had a rocky journey since March 2021, seems less certain now. China itself is focusing more on economic ties in the region through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). China and EU are also locked in a cycle of retaliatory sanctions. Going by the EU’s Ukraine experience and plans (the U.S has already taken measures to isolate and sanction Russia) to reduce reliance on energy imports from Russia and trade with that country, it appears highly likely that the European bloc will begin to lower reliance on trade links with China and relocate their Chinese supply chains. The process began during the pandemic but could now be informed by the exigencies of geopolitical developments.
The situation is further complicated by Russia’s dismal and incompetent military performance against determined Ukrainian resistance. With Russian military weaknesses exposed and its economy heavily-sanctioned, a weakened Russia has no real fallback position other than China. But while Russia will have to play second fiddle to China, it will also weigh Beijing down with the heavy cross it (Russia) bears now. It remains to be seen how China will calculate the cost of having Russia as a junior partner in its competition with the West.
All of this complicates matters for Pakistan, already reeling under political instability and polarisation, a constitutional crisis and depressed economy. Pakistan has a strategic relationship with China, but it is also heavily reliant on Western states — U.S, UK, EU — for its exports and help with international financial institutions, including the IMF. According to Pakistan’s Commerce Ministry, “Bilateral trade between Pakistan and the European Union went up by 78 percent to €12.2 billion in 2021 from €6.9bn in 2013, mainly due to implementation of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) plus scheme from January 2014.”
The United States remains Pakistan’s largest trading partner with 18.6 percent share of Pakistan’s exports. Additionally, it has influence with institutions and states that have helped Pakistan’s economy during the country’s recurring economic problems. As I mentioned in a Working Paper for Tabadlab:
“Pakistan has two primary concerns with reference to growing US-China tensions. Will it have to choose between the U.S and China? While Pakistan has a deep strategic partnership with China, Islamabad also has a long history of relations with the U.S. During the 1950s and 60s, Pakistan was referred to as the most allied ally. Despite ups and downs in US-Pakistan relations, the U.S remains Pakistan’s biggest export market. Pakistan’s military in the first four decades of the country’s existence, relied heavily on the U.S for military supplies. If relations between the U.S and China deteriorate further, the number of issues on which Pakistan will be expected by both the U.S and China to side with them will inevitably increase. If the U.S adds China to its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, Pakistan could face sanctions for its military exports from China and other joint-production programmes.”
This is not far-fetched, as we have seen with reference to the US/UK/EU concerns regarding Pakistan’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The tenuous balance I referred to in the opening is a real problem. I might also add that I have not referred to a number of other important states — Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, Australia — and their alliances with the West that are likely to further complicate the exercise of foreign policy and the choices Pakistan can make.
It is in this landscape that former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to drag the country’s relations with the U.S into domestic politics, as also negative statements with reference to Western states, has destroyed the balance which, ironically, was created by the hard work of some in his own government. Whoever now comes into power — and it could well be Khan — will have to do damage control and that, given the constraints of Pakistan’s economy, will further erode space for Pakistan to make independent choices. The biggest irony in all this is that Khan, in trying to present himself as the man with no external equities, has ended up reducing geopolitical space for the country.
The writer is a journalist with interest in foreign and security policies
It is instructive to cast a glance at what’s happening in the world and what kind of challenges the country faces