If the world is looking to wait out Trump, perhaps it should pay attention to the Democratic presidential race. This goes for watchers in Pakistan, too, who may be thinking of Trump’s re-election as a foregone conclusion. The latest Democratic debate last weekend didn’t answer the question many still have on their mind: which of the candidates is best placed to take on Trump? But it did make one thing clear: the Democrats will favour a foreign policy that is less interventionist and more cooperative than the incumbent.
After a lull, Afghanistan is back again in the DC chatter – thanks to Trump’s botched Camp David summit and the ensuing firing of John Bolton, his National Security Adviser. The third democratic debate also spent a good deal of time on Afghanistan. There was a near consensus among candidates to bring troops back home and pursue a peace deal, but none of them mentioned the word “Taliban”. Pakistan featured in the debate at a couple of important moments. In the first instance, it was when the former Vice President and current frontrunner Joe Biden suggested that Afghanistan was a lost cause. “It (Afghanistan) cannot be put together. Let me say it again. It will not be put together. It is three different countries. Pakistan owns the three counties — the three provinces in the east” Biden remarked.
Biden, who is well aware of the region’s complexities, given his Senate and VP roles, suggested a lead role for Pakistan after US withdrew its forces. “We can prevent the United States from being the victim of terror coming out of Afghanistan by providing for bases — insist the Pakistanis provide bases for us to air lift from and to move against what we know. We don’t need those troops there. I would bring them home”. That echo suggesting enhanced partnership with Pakistan would come as music to Islamabad. After years of sulking, Pakistan looks to be making inroads in DC. PM Khan’s July visit to Washington helped unfreeze the relations. Now, following India’s annexation of Kashmir, a mix of bipartisan US Senators and Congressmen have endorsed the idea of American mediation to avoid escalation between two nuclear powers. And the latest is Joe Biden suggesting a long partnership with Pakistan to secure US interests.
While that may sound good, Pakistan should also note that confronting China, Islamabad’s longtime friend, has become a bipartisan issue in America. President Trump is strongly supported by Senate Democrats in his tariff war with China. In the latest Democratic debate, too, the candidates showed plenty of red to China, arguing for a lopsided economic relationship to be addressed. If Beijing is tired of Trump, it has Biden coming its way with a toughening stance.
“The problem isn’t the trade deficit; the problem is they’re stealing our intellectual property. The problem is they’re violating the WTO. They’re dumping steel on us… if we don’t set the rules; we are going to find ourselves with China setting the rules. And that’s why you need to organize the world to take on China,” declared the former Veep.
At 27 percent in opinion polls, Joe Biden continues to be the frontrunner, with a 10 point spread over Bernie Sanders in second place. But it can change. There are months to go before a Democratic nominee is anointed to take on Trump. In order to hedge its bets, Pakistan needs to carefully monitor the foreign policy discourse among Democrats so that it is not caught off guard, like it was in November 2016.