ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s government has long said it is trying to maintain good relations with both China and the United States, despite rising tensions between Beijing and Washington. But Prime Minister Imran Khan was blunt in one of his recent public statements about where the two relationships are heading.
“Pakistan’s future is tied to China. We should be clear on this that our country’s [economic] development has now been intertwined with China,” Khan said in a wide-ranging interview aired by a local news channel last week.
“We are fortunate that we have a friend that stood by us through thick and thin. None of our other friends have stood by us like China politically supported and defended us on all fronts,” Khan told Dunya TV.
Since the start of the war in Afghanistan, the United States has been the largest source of foreign aid for Islamabad, providing billions of dollars in military and civilian assistance as part of the broader effort to defeat the Afghan Taliban. But from the beginning, there was also tension over whether Pakistan was helping or hurting the war effort.
Two things have changed in recent years: Washington signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in February, signaling an end to U.S. involvement in the conflict. At the same time, China dramatically expanded its outreach and investment in Pakistan.
Now many are asking what those two developments mean for Islamabad’s future foreign relations.
Chinese funds, Pakistani development
China has historically maintained close defense and security relations with Pakistan, and in recent years has encouraged joint manufacturing of various military-related hardware, including the JF-17 multipurpose combat aircraft.
Over the past five years, China expanded its economic outreach with Pakistan as the country became an anchor in its global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), part of an ambitious plan to forge new trade routes through Central and South Asia.
The estimated nearly $30 billion in investments under the BRI-linked bilateral cooperation known as a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, have improved Pakistani roads and ports and have addressed the country’s energy crisis.
Washington is critical of CPEC-related investments, saying Chinese companies building the infrastructure often reap most of the economic benefits, leaving foreign countries in a so-called “debt trap.” China and Pakistan reject the U.S. criticism of the projects.
Khan has meanwhile reached out to President Donald Trump’s administration to try to reset his country’s often tumultuous relations with the U.S. The two leaders have held three face-to-face meetings since their inaugural White House interaction in July 2019.
Moeed Yusuf, an aide to the Pakistani prime minister on national security, insisted his country has no favorites in the growing U.S.-China rivalry. He said he sees both countries as partners in promoting regional prosperity.
“We are not in the business of picking sides. From our prospective, the U.S. is a critical strategic partner. We depend on the U.S. a lot, the U.S. depends on us a lot,” Yusuf told an online debate this month arranged by the Atlantic Council think tank.
“We ultimately want to see ourselves as the melting pot and specifically the economic melting pot for the region,” Yusuf said.
Pakistan once acted as a bridge for Beijing and Washington in the 1970s during secret U.S.-China talks that resulted in their rapprochement. Yusuf insisted that Pakistan today remains “still very aptly poised” to play the role of “a neutral actor” to help defuse the tensions between the two big powers.
Michael Kugelman, the deputy South Asia program director at the Wilson Center, noted the U.S.-Pakistan relationship has “enjoyed a smooth period” amid cooperation on the Afghan peace process.
However, Kugelman cautioned the Washington-Beijing rivalry posed a challenge to Pakistan’s efforts to pursue a workable relationship with the U.S. while maintaining its “iron alliance” with its giant neighbor China.
“Pakistan will likely find itself under increased U.S. pressure to scale back its economic ties with China. Islamabad has no interest in doing so, and its close relationship with Beijing amplifies the limits to deepening its partnership with Washington,” said Kugelman.
Both Washington and Beijing appeared to be wooing Pakistan to their side as the country celebrated its independence from British colonial rule 73 years ago this month.
U.S. Ambassador Paul Jones said in a video message on the occasion that America was “proud to partner with Pakistan because when Pakistan thrives, the world is a better and safer place.”
Song Tao, the head of the International Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, said in a video meeting with Pakistani politicians last week that “we can give up gold but not our friendship with Pakistan.”
Trump administration builds on US ties
The Trump administration has boosted cooperation with Islamabad to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to suspending debt repayments and supporting emergency International Monetary Fund (IMF) assistance to help Pakistan deal with the health crisis and the ensuing economic challenges.
“The administration sees the U.S.-Pakistan relationship as one with real potential. We appreciate Pakistan’s steps to advance the Afghan peace process,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA.
“We also look forward to strengthening our bilateral partnership by expanding U.S.-Pakistan trade and working together to protect fundamental freedoms in the years to come.”
Islamabad’s alleged ties to militant groups accused of operating out of Pakistan against Afghanistan and India have been and remain a major irritant in bilateral relations with Washington.
Khan’s government denies the charges Pakistan secretly aids the militants, citing the military’s crackdown against extremist groups in the country and enactment of “unprecedented” legislative steps in recent weeks against terrorism financing and money laundering.
A lack of action to strengthen national financial systems to counter the crimes prompted the Paris-based global Financial Action Task Force (FATF) two years ago to place Pakistan on its so-called “gray list” of countries not doing enough to fight terror funding and money laundering.
Reset US-Pakistan ties
Khan and his aides acknowledge improved ties with Washington has won crucial U.S. support for Pakistan to improve its credentials with FATF and to avoid being moved to the agency’s blacklist of nations.
U.S. officials say that the Trump administration has also made clear that fulfilling the relationship’s potential requires progress on joint efforts to bring stability to the region and on Pakistan’s “sustained and irreversible” action against militant groups that use its territory.
When asked whether Pakistan’s growing BRI-linked cooperation with China poses a challenge to bilateral ties with Islamabad, the State Department spokesperson said Washington welcomes any investment and trade that promotes sustainable, fair and responsible development and growth.
“Unfortunately, PRC [People’s Republic of China] ‘investments’ often consist of opaque loans made by PRC state-owned banks disbursed to PRC contractors,” said the U.S. official.
“The United States offers a positive alternative — our transparent, private sector-driven model comes with a proven track record for delivering sustainable growth, reducing poverty, and fostering technological innovation,” the official said.
While responding to consistent U.S. criticism of the bilateral collaboration under CPEC, the Chinese ambassador in Islamabad last week strongly defended the project, saying the “mutually beneficial” undertaking is “open and transparent.”
Ambassador Yao Jing in an interview with official Pakistani TV again rebuked the “debt trap” allegations as U.S. propaganda against the project and vowed that “if Pakistan is in difficulty we will never pressurize our most trusted friend to repay the loans.”
Khan said in his TV interview that his government intends to further expand bilateral relations with China during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan due later this year.
Pakistani and Chinese officials say Xi’s visit will witness the launching of new projects under CPEC. They include a $6.8 billion program to upgrade Pakistan’s main railway line of about 1,900 kilometers, known as Main Line 1 (ML1).
Cindy Saine contributed to this report.