Pakistan and the United States have recently been pursuing a reset of relations. High-level visitors from both countries have expressed intentions to find a basis for a partnership not centered on Pakistan’s neighbors Afghanistan or India. While the United States has been circumspect in its vision for relations with Pakistan, emphasizing clean energy and public health, the discourse in Islamabad has been unmoored.
Pakistani commentators and officials have depicted official visits as major moves toward rekindling the U.S.–Pakistan partnership or even tilting away from China.
In September 2022, when the then-chief of army staff of Pakistan General Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Washington, an unnamed Pakistani official claimed that he expressed a desire for a South Korea-like alliance with the United States.
But the United States has no interest nor need for Pakistan to play such a role in South Asia. Pakistan is not a pivotal state coveted by the United States and other great powers, but rather an economically unstable nation that is beseeching great and regional powers for economic support.
Pakistan’s domestic politics has been a contributor to the divergence of its foreign policy discourse from global realities. The campaign to oust then-prime minister Imran Khan in early 2022 was justified in part by claims that he damaged Pakistan’s ties with the United States and other partners.
Pakistan’s strategic culture, shaped by the Cold War and War on Terror, also has furthered this disconnect. Pakistan’s civilian and military elites have internalized a belief that their country has a geostrategic centrality. Great power rivalry features in both elite and broader political debates. Pakistan’s strategic community has adroitly managed resistance from great powers to achieve national aims, including its nuclear weapons program.
But Pakistan’s diplomatic finesse is now of limited value. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the effective end of the War on Terror, Pakistan’s geopolitical importance has been reduced. Today’s geopolitics is increasingly shaped by energy resources and knowledge economy-driven technologies like artificial intelligence — areas where Pakistan is deficient.
Pakistan’s strategic community must not only come to terms with their country’s growing geopolitical irrelevance, but it also needs to develop a clearer understanding of the implications of the ongoing attempted rebalancing toward the United States. The potential upside of a tilt toward the United States is modest and the risks to Pakistan’s relationship with China are significant.
While the desire in U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration for a reset of ties with Pakistan is genuine, but its ceiling is low. In previous high periods of U.S.–Pakistan relations, Islamabad saw inflows of billions of U.S. dollars in aid annually and frequent high-profile visits. But now there is little appetite for directing large sums of aid or bureaucratic bandwidth toward Pakistan. Resentment toward Islamabad is pervasive in Washington as its military is seen as a major cause of the United States’ failure in Afghanistan.
Given this context, U.S.–Pakistan relations will be limited to the non-strategic domain. For Washington, Islamabad will occupy a regional status akin to that of Dhaka, not New Delhi — albeit with a greater security dimension.
This low ceiling for relations should factor into Pakistan’s assessments of the trade-offs in navigating this new multipolar era. In 2022, general Bajwa went out of his way to identify the United States as Pakistan’s partner of choice, slighting China. But considering China is Pakistan’s largest bilateral creditor, investor, and source of arms, it is a poor idea to antagonize a country from which one seeks debt relief or restructuring.
Pakistani leaders are right to seek an improved relationship with the United States, which is its largest export market and home to a prosperous Pakistani diaspora. But their attempts to avoid getting tied with China in its rivalry with the United States are clumsy. While U.S. officials say they are not forcing Pakistan to choose between the United States and China, they succumb to the temptation to cite Pakistan as an example of China’s failings as an economic partner.
In September 2022, senior Pakistani officials sought support for debt relief from the United States. But U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken instead publicly called on Pakistan to seek assistance from Beijing first, triggering an angry response from Chinese officials.
In a video statement published by Pakistani state media, Beijing’s envoy in Islamabad chided the United States, stating that it should do “real and beneficial things” for Pakistan “instead of finger-pointing.” Pakistan not only became the “geopolitical football” it says it does not want to be, but was also compelled to defend China.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s economic distress inhibits its ability to navigate this multipolar era as adroitly as India. New Delhi continues to be aggressively courted by Washington even as it remains closely partnered with Moscow and a major importer of Russian oil.
For Pakistan to increase its resilience to the geopolitical storms ahead, it must play the long game and prioritize domestic economic reform. The type of private sector inflows from the West that can reduce its dependence on China and produce sustained, rapid growth will have to be hard-earned. They will require the development of human capital, reduction of barriers to investment, and political stability. For Pakistan’s rulers, now is a time for real work, not rent-seeking.
This article was originally published on the East Asia Forum.