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Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the sidelines of the 76th UN General Assembly in New York. Photo: AP

Pakistan fears US is targeting its China links as it seeks to settle scores from Afghanistan

  • After the fall of Kabul, Washington no longer needs Islamabad. Indeed, it is still smarting from Pakistan’s harbouring of the Taliban
  • This leaves plans to expand the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into Afghanistan vulnerable, not least because Beijing has its own doubts about its ‘iron-clad’ ally
Fears are growing in Islamabad that the United States is targeting its plans to expand the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan, as punishment for enabling the Taliban’s return to power in August.
Pakistan’s efforts to “reset” relations with the US, so as to avoid being caught up in its intensifying competition with Islamabad’s closest strategic ally China, have been cold-shouldered by the administration of Joe Biden.
On September 14, as he was pointedly questioned by angry members of the House of Representatives’ foreign affairs committee, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US would soon undertake a formal reassessment of its relationship with Pakistan.

“This is one of the things we’re going to be looking at in the days, and weeks ahead - the role that Pakistan has played over the last 20 years, but also the role we would want to see it play in the coming years and what it will take for it to do that,” Blinken said.

Pakistan retains its status as a “major non-Nato ally” despite being denied US military assistance since September 2018.

Blinken told the Congressional committee that Pakistan had a “multiplicity of interests, some that are in conflict with ours”.

“It is one that has involved hedging its bets constantly about the future of Afghanistan, it’s one that has involved harbouring members of the Taliban ... It is one that is also involved in different points of cooperation with us on counterterrorism,” Blinken said.

His remarks infuriated Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan who, in a September 16 interview with US broadcaster CNN, said: “I have never heard such ignorance.”

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

However, Khan’s rhetoric belies the vulnerability of Pakistan’s economy to any vengeful measures by the US, whether imposed directly or through pressure at multilateral financial organisations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

On September 27, a group of 22 Republican senators introduced a bill which, if approved, would require the US government to investigate Pakistan’s support for the Taliban during the 20-year foreign occupation of Afghanistan, as a precursor to the imposition of economic sanctions.

While the bill’s submission went unreported by the US media, amid Senate foreign relations committee hearings on Afghanistan, it sparked a furore in Pakistan.

“Enough is enough!” human rights minister Shireen Mazari tweeted on Tuesday.

“It is time for those powers who were present in Afghanistan to look to their own failures instead of targeting Pakistan,” she said.

Mazari’s tweet was also ignored by the international media, but it unnerved investors at the Pakistan Stock Exchange, which is 40 per cent owned by a consortium of three Chinese bourses.

The benchmark KSE-100 index shed three per cent on September 29 because investors were worried that congressional anger would somehow manifest as tighter US conditions for the resumption of balance of payments support to Pakistan under a US$6 billion IMF programme.

Pakistan bends again as it grants US warplanes access to its skies

Finance Minister Shaukat Tareen is headed to Washington next week to participate in the IMF’s review of Pakistan’s programme and meet the board of governors.

Pakistan needs the dollar injection to stabilise its rupee currency, which has depreciated nearly 11 per cent against the US dollar since May because of an import-driven post-pandemic economic recovery.

The Republican bill, which needs support from Senate majority Democrats to be approved, prompted Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesman Asim Iftikhar Ahmed to invoke ongoing counterterrorism cooperation with the US on Wednesday.
It includes allowing US military drones continued access to Afghan airspace via Pakistan to mount counterterrorist patrols against al-Qaeda and Islamic State-Khorasan militants.

Ahmed said sustained security cooperation between Pakistan and the US would “remain critical in dealing with any future terrorist threat in the region”.

“Such proposed legislative measures are, therefore, uncalled for and counterproductive,” he said.

Two factors would weigh heavily on Washington’s reevaluation of its relationship with Pakistan, said Barnett Rubin, non-resident senior fellow at the Centre on International Cooperation at New York University.

“The US no longer needs Pakistan for military logistics into Afghanistan; and, the US can no longer demand that Pakistan disrupt the Taliban leadership, because the leadership is now in Afghanistan,” Rubin said.

Taliban fighters on a paddle boat at Qargha Lake on the outskirts of Kabul. Photo: AFP

Andrew Small, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a Washington-based think tank, said the US-Pakistan relationship was still in flux.

“Of course there is critical US sentiment, given the role that Pakistan played not just in the Taliban’s victory but in providing support to groups that killed US troops,” Small said.

“But there is also a view that it’s time to move beyond the level of attention that Afghanistan and Pakistan had consumed and focus on higher priorities, so although there is certainly thinking going on about what shape the new relationship has to take, it’s not absorbing so much energy right now,” he said.

Small said he expected the balance in US-Pakistan relations to “come out in a sour rather than retributive place”.

Likewise, he did not foresee the US taking measures to specifically target CPEC.

He said the intensification of the US-China rivalry certainly left Pakistan, which Beijing has described as its “iron-clad” ally, in a more difficult spot than before.

“But that doesn’t mean that Washington is going to try to block or undermine Chinese investments in the country,” said Small, who also holds a position at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank.

“It does mean that there will be extra care that the United States is not bailing out Chinese firms or financing institutions though, so I’m sure that the heightened scrutiny on the IMF’s involvement in Pakistan, for instance, will continue,” he said.

Rubin, who is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said if the US wanted to weaken Pakistan’s dependence on the CPEC, the only effective strategy would be to offer a better alternative.

Who can the Taliban count on as they govern Afghanistan?

“Washington is talking about doing that but has not yet done it. As the saying goes, you can’t beat somebody with nobody,” he said.

This is somewhat reassuring news for Pakistan, which is keen to press ahead with its envisioned extension of the estimated US$62 billion CPEC into Afghanistan.

Its ambassador in Kabul, Mansoor Ahmad Khan, on Tuesday said he had held discussions with the Taliban regime on CPEC and other ways of developing Afghanistan’s economy.

The expressway section of the Karakorum Highway in Pakistan. The project is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Photo: Xinhua

Activity slows

Despite unveiling grand plans in March for a connectivity-driven, geopolitics-based foreign policy after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, CPEC activity has slowed markedly in the three years since Imran Khan became Pakistan’s prime minister.
Beijing was discreet about its complaints about the slowdown until July, when 10 Chinese nationals working at the Dasu hydropower project in northern Pakistan were killed in a suicide car-bombing attack.

Since then, Chinese officials have become vocal about security concerns and Pakistani governance-related issues ailing CPEC, despite Pakistani ministers’ efforts to downplay them.

At a videoconference meeting of the CPEC joint coordination committee on September 23 - the first since November 2019 - Ning Jizhe, vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, reminded Pakistan that the security of its nationals was the “pre-condition” for all Chinese economic investment.

He listed Beijing’s complaints, twice saying he looked forward to “real action” by Islamabad.

Ning called on Pakistan to ensure CPEC projects were completed on time; resolve its own project funding issues; expedite payment of US$1.4 billion owed to operators of independent power projects set up under CPEC for the electricity they have supplied; reconsider increased taxes on the power generation companies; increase incentives for Chinese companies to set up shop at CPEC special economic zones.

Unsurprisingly, no new major CPEC projects were announced at the meeting. Nor was any progress reported in negotiations for the estimated US$8 billion rehabilitation and upgradation of Pakistan’s railway network, potentially the CPEC programme’s largest project, because of Beijing’s doubts about Islamabad’s ability to repay the Chinese contractor.

“Evidently relations with Pakistan are on a lower ebb than they were a few years ago, when the Chinese government was optimistic they would see an improving set of economic linkages and a security situation that was on an upward trajectory,” analyst Small said.

Workers remove damaged vehicles after a suicide bomb exploded near a luxury hotel hosting the Chinese ambassador in Quetta, Pakistan. Photo: EPA

“The overall relationship is still sound, and we are in a phase where the Chinese government has heightened reliance on Pakistan to navigate developments in Afghanistan,” he said.

But China is worried about the overall security context in the neighbourhood, longstanding issues on CPEC have not been resolved, and “they see it as Pakistan’s responsibility to address these problems”, said Small.

He said Beijing was aware that Pakistan was feeling the pressure from the US side but it had seen plenty of internal political and economic factors that were already getting in the way of CPEC.

“This is a relationship that China had really wanted to elevate in recent years, but it can be pared back to its more limited core if need be,” Small said.

Rubin, too, foresaw Pakistan as having less room for manoeuvre, despite the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“Pakistan will find that the US needs it less than before and that China will be more reluctant to sink money into a difficult environment where their citizens get killed like Pakistan,” he said.