While India’s so-called regional isolation lately is a cause of much mirth in Pakistan, the eagle-eyed should instead be paying more attention to a simmering global rivalry that will have local implications. Historically, Pakistan’s foreign policy has looked to balance the country’s relationship with United States and China. Pretty soon the country may be asked to choose a side permanently, or risk annoying both.
It is unfortunate that the US-China standoff is turning worse. First came the so-called tariff war in 2018 and 2019, destabilizing the open and free trade regime. Restrictions on Chinese tech firms along the way added acid to the mix. And just when a mega trade pact was close to fruition, the Covid-19 pandemic struck hard earlier this year and spoiled hopes for a rapprochement.
Fumbling the virus response and fearing an election loss later this fall, Trump took to calling Sars-Cov-2 the “China Virus” and signaled more economic retaliation. Not to show weakness, Beijing also hardened its language at a delicate moment for its global diplomacy. Nationalist postures followed, as evidenced by China’s swift measures in Hong Kong, Ladakh, and the South China Sea.
But the mood in Western capitals has increasingly soured on China. A majority of US public, polls show, thinks negatively about China today, a clear reversal from a decade ago. Even the EU, which is sensitive to local investment interests of its member states, has telegraphed resistance to China’s further forays into the continental economy. Now the Sino-US spat has degenerated to close military maneuvers in narrow marine lanes and closing of diplomatic facilities.
Not a good way to celebrate the golden jubilee of Nixon’s sojourn to China! Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, stood outside Richard Nixon Presidential Library in California last week, called China’s regime tyrannical and denounced the West’s “blind engagement”. “The truth is that our policies – and those of other free nations – resurrected China’s failing economy, only to see Beijing bite the international hands that were feeding it,” he said in a speech titled “Communist China and the Free World’s Future”.
Those are tough words coming from the most senior American diplomat, words that may cause irreparable harm to this relationship. But make no mistake: the speeches made recently by top US cabinet officials are part of a concerted US effort to take on China. Trump probably has no idea of long-term ramifications, but the US establishment seems to be done with China. Statements from the US Senate and Congress also suggest that the growing antagonism towards China has a bipartisan flavor. There are also indications that Joe Biden, if elected, won’t change course – though strategy may change.
Stung by US indifference every alternate decade, it should not come as a surprise if a new cold war forced Pakistan to fully place itself in China’s orbit. In fact, a slow process is already underway, thanks to CPEC. But a US-China breakup, with or without a period of military engagement, will likely bifurcate the global trading and financial systems as well as destroy the multilateral world order. That will negatively impact Pakistan’s economy, politics, and society. The need for a balancing act is perhaps more than ever, but its efficacy is questionable in a world that is fast polarizing again between two great powers.