Pakistan has long struggled with deep civil strife. Since widespread ethnic cleansing after India’s partitioning in the 1940s, a myriad of foreign aggressors and internal conflicts have hindered the nation’s development. Now, however, the country is the focus of a different kind of attention from regional superpowers — it lies at the intersection of American, Chinese, and Indian interests for hegemony in South Asia. A close observation of the state of affairs in the country today yields two insights: First, China is already outperforming its rivals in this race for regional dominance. Second, Pakistan is on the brink of becoming a model for growth and development despite domestic terrorism and instability.
There are several factors that have contributed to China’s significant success, relative to that of India or the US, in forming a beneficial relationship with Pakistan. Put simply, only China has approached sought more than a series of transactions with Pakistan; instead, China seems to be the only country looking to develop a long term relationship with Pakistan. As part of their “one belt, one road” policy aimed at rebuilding a modem silk road across Asia, the Chinese have committed $46 billion to improving and expanding critical energy and infrastructure projects across Pakistan. In fact, while China naturally benefits from opening up the Pakistani market and improving transportation to Gwadar Port, where Chinese goods can go straight to the Arabian Sea, it is unclear if the benefits of the plan actually outweigh the costs. Pakistan, however, stands to benefit enormously, demonstrating that China seems to be playing the long game.
The outcome of this generous commitment has been twofold: first, relations between the two countries are closer than ever. Second, China seems to be facilitating a mobilization against terrorism in the country. The second outcome is arguably the most important and potentially most long-lasting effect. Pakistan has committed to producing a 10,000 strong defensive force to protect workers on the new roads being built. The Pakistani government has also made unusually strong commitments to eliminating terrorism, an important development given Pakistan’s history of using terrorist groups to achieve strategic goals.
Recent terrorist violence in Pakistan is explicitly linked to the government’s new initiatives. At face value, this shows the continued ability of terrorist groups to cause mayhem in the country. A more realistic understanding of why an established group would rely more heavily on one-off acts of terrorism than more traditional forms of warfare is that it comes from declining capabilities and anything but strength. Not only is the psychology behind these most recent attacks probably a fearful one, but the government has also responded with no holds barred. The most recent developments in Pakistan actually prove the game-changing weight of China’s economic corridor in issues of domestic security and stability.
The effectiveness of China’s strategic investment in its bilateral relationship with Pakistan is better understood in comparison to India’s troubled interactions with its neighbor. The relationship is thus: India wants a reduction of violence and terrorism from across the border, so it approaches Pakistan with a list of demands and a lot of suspicion. Pakistan responds with complaints about the Kashmir region and many other demands, attempting to enforce these demands with extramilitary action and nuclear standoffishness. This attitude engenders more dislike on India’s part, which in turn annoys Pakistan, and so on ad nauseam.
India’s Prime Minister Modi has been hailed for pushing high level talks between the countries and taking initiative instead of relying on Pakistan to set the tone. However, there is simply too much diplomatic muck to wade through for Modi’s efforts to easily see success. Ideological differences between India and Pakistan stand in the way of the kind of investment China has made in the country, meaning that the Sino-Pakistani relationship is inherently drastically different than the Indo-Pakistani one.
In both cases, conditions were nowhere near perfect to invest; Chinese and Indian citizens and resources ran the risk of being lost to terrorism. India had the extra challenge of a broader rift with Pakistan, but economic cooperation seems like a path to making Pakistan at least marginally more receptive to Indian interests. The greatest obstacle to an agreement actually generates a good reason to pursue one. India may have had a more challenging process on the surface, but ultimately both countries would have best been able to achieve their interests by creating closer ties. Ultimately, however, China took a chance and invested capital to align Pakistan’s incentives its own.
Meanwhile, the US should be starting from a better position to form a strong relationship with Pakistan. But to date, it has only pursued half-hearted military cooperation without really striving for a productive contribution to the country. Recent talks between the two countries have been rhetorically smooth but empty and divided on the issues. This lack of substance is embodied in a failed power play by the US last year. When Pakistan failed to act against the Haqqani Network, a notorious terror group with deep ties to the military, the US threatened to withhold a significant portion of the support it had pledged for the upkeep of Pakistani military forces. Eventually, as Pakistan stood its ground, the US caved, ignoring the conditionality it had established for its financial support. This is similar to what has been happening for years: the US identifies a strategic objective in the region and pours money and unnecessarily powerful weapons into Pakistani hands to achieve it, angering India and failing to realize any desirable results since the countries have misaligned strategic goals. Then, the US gets frustrated with the rate of progress in the bilateral relationship while Pakistani leaders see very little reason to rely on a tempestuous and uncertain ally.
In order to gain influence in the region, the US, India and China have all looked to Pakistan. Both the US and India have spent lots of time and money trying to develop a beneficial relationship with the South Asian nation with very little success. On the other hand, China has been far more economical and impactful in its quest for influence by building a world in which collaboration stems from aligned interests and not a series of exchanges or dead-end dialogues.
In certain situations, a well-planned transfer of resources from the intervening country to Pakistan has the potential to grow both economies, thereby challenging the roots of extremism in Pakistan and giving local politicians and people a reason to authentically defend the intervening country’s interests. Proponents of the current American or Indian strategies will argue that they have enabled space for the Chinese to take advantage of necessary defensive and diplomatic efforts, which is probable. What is not so easily defensible is that neither country has moved on from its belligerent, transactional mindset, despite the opportunity to do so.
Pakistan’s future looks bright. The Chinese economic corridor signals freedom from exclusive reliance on American aid, which will in turn lead to a more effective anti-terror campaign and myriad benefits for the people of the country. The world would do well to watch and learn from the Pakistani model as it evolves.