IN a symbolically staged address at the US State Department, President Biden unveiled what the US would do globally under his watch. The punch line was “America is back”. The scattershot era of Trump is over. New era is on anvil. It is renewing global engagement by the US to lead the world once again by revitalizing its diplomacy, alliances and moral authority. He made significant announcements which signalled his seriousness and resolve to effect the change of posture from isolationist one under Trump to traditional one. Notable ones included no more support to Saudi-led offensive in Yemen, threats from rivals to US prosperity, security and democratic values, freeze on troops drawdown in Germany, revival of Iran nuclear deal and renewal of its membership in Paris accord and WHO, preservation of democracy around the world, boosting LGBT rights and removing draconian caps of Trump on refugees and reinvigorating the US international institutions to regain moral ascendency. He did not mince words to categorize growing ambitions of China to rival the US as the most serious one to be dealt with. No more modus vivendi was the clarion call to hold the Chinese bull.
Biden voiced serious concern about Beijing’s aggressive and coercive actions to muscle its way through economically and politically worldwide while particularly mentioning its alleged economic abuses, violations on human rights and intellectual property. Besides this, Biden also darkly warned a bipartisan group of Senators more recently while discussing with them about issues of US infrastructure. Biden said, he spoke to Xi for two hours and warned the Senators “if we don’t get moving, China is going to eat our launch”. The US must raise its game in face of the Chinese challenge. In brief, during conversation, Chinese President XiJinping called for a ‘win-win’ cooperation while reminding Biden that confrontation would be a disaster. Two sides should re-establish the means to avoid misjudgments but Biden had something different up the sleeves. He vowed to out compete Beijing. This sets the pitch for fierce tug and pull between the two.
The game is on. With Biden, it has drawn closer than anticipated. For the reason of the awesome lethality of the weapon system possessed by both, direct confrontation is unlikely. Cold war is the instrument to out general each other. The US is seasoned in its art. China is a novice thus, it may have to incur extra expenditure in effort and substance. Given conditions, the US has the edge on the chessboard. China could match the US economically but lags behind by a considerable distance in terms of ideological appeal, military presence at nodal points internationally, ideals of liberty/freedom, moral authority, international political influence and diplomacy. BRI is a dream Chinese initiative. It had the potential to jumpstart Chinese journey outward economically and politically but so far, it turned out to be a mixed bag. Reasons are not difficult to decipher. The escalating cold war between the US and China would also engulf other countries particularly, those countries which fall on their line of engagement.
Pakistan is among such countries. CPEC is a flagship project of BRI. Its road component provides China a short and economical access to all-weather seaport at Gwadar. It is an out gate worldwide, particularly, to the ME, Europe and Africa. Sooner or later, this would put Pakistan at centre stage. On one side, there is a reliable friend China which has helped Pakistan through thick and thin. Its ongoing collaborative relationship in the realm of CPEC is considered a game changer for Pakistan economically. On other hand, it is the US which is also a friend but does not hesitate to act as a foe if Pakistan does not toe its critical line. Apart from this, power equation between the two as highlighted above, presents Pakistan a difficult dilemma with a narrow margin of decision, especially in the context of its extreme economic woes. Potentially this is a high wire act.
With change in posture by the US globally, there is another aspect which affect Pakistan critically. It is Afghanistan from where complete withdrawal the US forces is also under review. Afghan peace process was already a shaky and fragile proposition. Now with an element of uncertainty creeping in, it may crumble. Afghan Taliban has expressed serious reservations if original peace plan is deviated. Portents are not also good with a rise in violence. This would entail implications of its own with regard to CPEC including threat of terrorism. Terrorism against cargo plying on its routes would be of even greater serious ramifications because fundamentally, money is coward and cargo is the money. This moves in safer environments individually, not in a convey. This further aggravates the situation. The road component of CPEC is of vital importance to China and this could not be made fully operational with optimum benefits until these conditions are met.
One, Pakistan overcomes its economic afflictions and finds sound and robust economic path. Two, Pakistan is able to seal its western borders effectively with completion of its fencing and enhanced border control mechanism. Three, Pakistan raises exclusive security troops to guard routes of CPEC against terrorism in totality. For all this, Pakistan needs money which could only come in sufficient if development prong of the CPEC is completed speedily with economy. China may have to show largesse in this regard. Fourth, China is also able to secure shipping lanes beyond Gwadar. During intervening period, it is for Pakistan how it keeps the US at ease or its pressure at bay by leveraging its strategic strength. The frankness is the essence of friendship. Hopefully, being a true friend, China would understand these compelling compulsions in spirit of mutual comprehension if told frankly.
— The writer, a retired Lt Col, is a senior columnist based in Islamabad.