If it is not too late in view of China’s embrace, the United States needs to reboot its relationship with Pakistan, our enigmatic ally in South Asia.
While the U.S. is focused on the success of ISIS, Iranian sponsorship of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, a nuclear agreement with Iran, and the emergence of Republican candidates for president, China has quietly made a strategic and monumental financial commitment to Pakistan to invest $46 billion in roads, railways, and energy pipelines connecting itself with Pakistan. To put this in perspective, cumulative U.S. aid to Pakistan since 9/11 has approximated $31 billion, based on a February 2015 summary by Congressional Research Services (CRS), and most of it was for the military, assuring U.S. access to the region.
The infrastructure supported by China will extend from the Pakistani port of Gwadar, constructed by China and then acquired by that country into western China. Long vulnerable to a blockade of the Strait of Malacca where an estimated 80 percent of China’s imported oil must pass, China will in the future have some overland transport capability.
A principal strategic value of Pakistan for the U.S. is its military and economic resources to manage about 43 million Pashtun, nearly a third of which are in Afghanistan, with the remainder in Pakistan. Fiercely nationalistic, the Pashtun were a restive influence during the Mughal and British Empires, and during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and more recently they have been heavily represented in the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans. Pakistan’s strategic value also derives from China’s interest in direct access to the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Pakistan can also exercise some control over jihadists seeking to migrate from Afghanistan into western China, which has a Uyghur population that is Muslim — and Turkic like some of the tribes of Afghanistan. Further, Pakistan has an estimated 100-120 nuclear weapons, according to the Federation of American Scientists, and the country is in an aggressive development mode.
In operational terms, Pakistani airspace will be needed for continued attacks by unmanned aerial vehicles on selected al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in adjacent Afghanistan. And the U.S. will need continued direct access to the Pakistan Army.
It is worth pondering what else China has done for Pakistan. First, China has built out the Karakoram Highway connecting Pakistan to Sinkiang Uighur, where garishly painted trucks belch fumes along a desolate part of the old Silk Route. Second, with regard to military equipment, China has equipped the Pakistan Air Force with the JF-17 fighter through another joint venture, and Pakistan is known to also want the JC-31 stealth, to the consternation of India. A joint venture between Pakistan China in Taxila, Pakistan manufactures the Al-Khalid MBT-2000, the main battle tank of the Pakistan Army. Third, China has assisted with the construction of six civilian nuclear reactors in Pakistan. And fourth, China is Pakistan’s number one import partner and number two export partner, with two-way trade estimated at $10 billion.
It is well known that China is building a navy to be commensurate with its status as the second largest economy in the world by nominal GDP. China’s influence and logistical capabilities are further enhanced by investment in maritime facilities in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, for example — in addition to Gwadar by the Gulf of Oman, which connects to the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf.
The U.S has come to a critical juncture with Pakistan. There has been much frustration in Congress going back to the embargo of F-16 aircraft in the 1980s, and more recently the controversial use of unmanned aerial vehicles, the suspected harboring of Osama bin Laden, and charges of hesitation and working both sides of the fence in the GWOT.
There are some in Congress who have been willing to end the annual foreign aid to Pakistan, reported by CRS in mid-February at $794 million, although this figure has previously been significantly higher. In view of China’s immense aid commitment, and there is more where that came from, the question must be asked: is Pakistan worth it?
The U.S. can pursue a damage control approach recognizing that its partnership with India and the amount of Chinese commitment to Pakistan represent a strategic disconnect as far a good relations with Pakistan will be concerned. Or, it can seek to restructure certain aid commitments to support what is more visible to the Pakistani people, rather than continuing to be seen as principally supporting the elitist Pakistan Army’s grip. Development of the electricity grid and natural gas resources could do just that, since households experience frequent outages and natural gas is used extensively in cooking and vehicles.
Unlike the United States which has at best had a sporadic friendship with Pakistan, China is not averse to military governments in that country or to Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons. While Pakistan is a frustration for Congress now, it will be a bigger concern as a conduit for Chinese influence on the sea lanes accessible from the Indian Ocean, where an estimated 80 percent of the world’s seaborne oil passes.