Looking beyond CPEC

Pakistan’s transformation into a pukka regional player is near completion. Even if the US chooses to remain in denial. This was underscored by the Chinese Foreign Minister’s three-day visit; which was far more than a stopover on the way to bigger and tastier fry.

Of course, at face value Wang Yi’s trip was largely a symbolic one. To demonstrate continuity on the CPEC front despite the change of guard at the Centre. And it delivered. With the Pakistani side reiterating that the flagship infrastructure project is without doubt the new PTI government’s top priority. And then came the mutual reassurances about linking Economic Corridor projects to socio-economic development at the grass roots level. While Beijing went out of its way to emphasise that fears about saddling this country with Chinese debt were misguided.

Yet behind-the-scenes much more was going on. Naturally, the recent Pompeo meeting would have featured in talks; at least in terms of the US game plan for Afghanistan. But far more crucial is the mammoth endeavour currently underway to redraw South Asia’s balance of power away from the traditional American tilt; in favour of the dragon. This is not mere speculation. It is but a done deal. For the simple reason that Beijing has consistently expanded its economic clout and outreach. It concentrates on the end goal and does not force the issue by playing the humanitarian intervention card. Thus for most in this neighbourhood Beijing represents a far more reliable partner than the US; which has a penchant for direct or proxy military aggression to ensure its will is done.

Another reason why China is viewed as a stabilising force is because instead of competing with regional powers, it works alongside them. It has, after all, successfully brought Russia into the CPEC fold. A move that has been ruled a veritable game-changer. All of which benefits Pakistan. Especially considering how the latter has rebuilt ties with Moscow; proving that it is possible to move beyond anachronistic Cold War dynamics. In short, another invaluable gain is that the Corridor renders both Beijing and Russia invested in Islamabad’s security. For a peaceful and strong Pakistan does not only portend well for the future of the region — it is also critical to CPEC returns.

As this country therefore turns increasingly towards a deep economic partnership with China and one of military cooperation with Russia, the question must be asked as to where this leaves the US in terms of the bilateral relationship. The answer is that this depends almost entirely on Washington. Or better put, while it is in Pakistan’s interests to have a good working relationship with its traditional ally – this cannot come at the expense of important regional partnerships. And it would be unfair of the Americans to expect this given how they manage to juggle, at times more carefully than others, ties with both Islamabad and New Delhi.

In short, the days where the US sat alone in the driving seat have long gone. Thus it is in everyone’s interests for Washington to get on the multilateral gravy train. Before it is too late and the latter finds itself left behind.  *

Published in Daily Times, September 9th 2018.