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Pakistan pivots to center as US and China vie for regional supremacy

Islamabad attempts peace with India, wary of being seen as Beijing's proxy

Pakistan's most powerful man Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa is seen at a military parade in Islamabad, Pakistan.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Even though he wasn't supposed to smoke on the flight, the two-star general was doing it anyway. And nobody onboard, not even the crew, would dare stop him.

It was 2017, and Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, then the chief spokesperson of the Pakistan Army, the world's sixth-largest and only nuclear-armed Islamic military in the world, was on board a Pakistan International Airlines flight, flying back to Islamabad from London.

He was returning from a diplomatic mission that would sow the seeds of rapprochement which began to sprout this week, as details emerged about Pakistan and India's thaw through back-channel talks facilitated by European and Arab states, a stunning development between the archrivals.

Like many military officers, Ghafoor smoked.

But unlike most, the artillery general had a penchant for granting interviews on long-haul flights -- the perfect moment to talk about his recent trip.

Ghafoor had just spent a week in the U.K. with his boss, Pakistan's most powerful man, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, conducting what his public relations machine was calling a spate of "military diplomacy."

"We told the British, and through them the Americans, that we are much like them, and not our friends in the East" said Ghafoor, wearing a blazer with a pocket square and a lapel pin in the shape a Pakistan flag, over swirling wisps emanating from his Marlboro Slim. He was referring to Pakistan's staunch ally, China.

"We emphasized that we share the same traditions, the same regiments and even the same uniforms with the British. That's because we have the same colonial history, the same past. We are naturally Western-oriented. Please remember that we were together during the Cold War, and don't bracket us with China. Don't force us into that camp."

Relations between Washington and Islamabad had been increasingly frosty since the mid-2000s, primarily over what the U.S. alleged was Pakistani support for the Taliban as well as Islamabad's tightening embrace of China. On that trip in late summer 2017, Ghafoor, his boss and other top Pakistani generals had been trying to send reconciliatory signals to the estranged Americans through their common cousin, the more familiar British defense establishment. After all, the Pakistani military traced its lineage back to the British Indian armed forces when Great Britain ruled the subcontinent, and maintained those important connections over the decades since independence.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan attends a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in April 2019 at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing.    © Reuters

Kemal Alam, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a British government-funded think tank in London, said that in his tenure at the organization from 2015 till 2019, at least two dozen Pakistani generals visited the U.K.

"Two-stars, three-stars, even four-stars, visited often," said Alam. "London was an important stop for them to relay signals to Washington."

But besides passing on the word to the Americans, the British had also encouraged the Pakistanis to normalize ties in their own neighborhood, and so Bajwa had reciprocated by breaking new ground. At London's RUSI, he offered an olive branch to an old enemy, announcing that India -- Pakistan's larger neighbor and nemesis -- was welcome to join the much-vaunted China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the $60 billion flagship infrastructure project of China's Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). 

Though muted and disrupted by diplomatic shortfalls and military engagements, the overtures from Islamabad continued in one way or the other, with little interest from India. Fast forward to last week and Bajwa, now firmly in charge of Pakistan's foreign affairs after being granted an extension of tenure by the pro-military government, has made another advance toward India, with a fresh offer to "bury the past."

The Indians have finally responded. On Tuesday, Pakistan's National Day, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan with a warmly worded letter, hoping for the end of hostility in the region. Almost on cue, a bevy of reports has surfaced, detailing how the Pakistanis and Indians had been engaged in behind-the-scenes talks with help from common friends. And immediately, the low-hanging fruit of the India-Pakistan peace process, talks over water-sharing agreements, was plucked by a meeting of Indian and Pakistani agricultural secretaries this week.

Considering the two countries almost went to war two years ago, when India sent warplanes to attack Pakistan for Islamabad's alleged support of militants in the disputed Muslim-majority region of Kashmir -- which Pakistan responded to by downing an Indian jet and capturing the pilot -- diplomats and analysts are assessing the compulsions behind Pakistan's peace overtures, and India's reciprocity.

Tactically, they say, the expected American military pullout from neighboring Afghanistan is forcing Pakistan to play nice, for the Islamic republic does not want to return to where it was on Sep. 10, 2001, before it signed up to help the U.S. in Afghanistan: an isolated, semi-pariah state without many friends or prospects, and the primary supporter of the Taliban.

Strategically, they estimate that the great power competition brewing in the larger Indo-Pacific region between Pakistan's old partner, the U.S., and its staunch ally, China, is pushing Islamabad toward the center ground of nonalignment.

"There are two drivers for Pakistan. Firstly, [U.S. President Joe] Biden is sending clear signals that Afghanistan is going to be sorted," said a former senior U.S diplomat who who has worked in the region. "Our troops might not be out by May 1 [the deadline set by the Trump administration], but we will still leave." 

Biden on Thursday said he "can't picture" U.S. troops being in Afghanistan next year.

"We are not staying for a long time. We will leave," Biden said in his first press conference as president. 

The American official said the inevitable withdrawal will change the dynamic. "We will want Pakistan to continue to support the Afghanistan project but the U.S. won't be as dependent on them. So they risk feeling isolated from the U.S. again."

A container is loaded on to the container ship Cosco Wellington at the China Pakistan Economic Corridor port in Gwadar, Pakistan.   © Reuters

But in the greater scheme, with U.S.-China tensions soaring over the former's quest for a "rules-based international order" in the Indo-Pacific, the Pakistanis are worried they could be looked upon not as a partner of the West, but a mere proxy of Beijing. 

"The U.S.-versus-China rivalry is a major concern for Pakistan. It has left heads spinning in Islamabad," said the official. "The Pakistanis are saying, 'Wait a minute. We used to be friends with both the Chinese and the Americans, and now suddenly it's no longer acceptable? And there's pressure to choose sides?'"

"And there's public criticism of CPEC, which they believe is crucial to stimulate economic growth and create much needed jobs. The Pakistanis didn't see it happening this way."

The former diplomat was referring to Gen. Bajwa's recent statement about the massive, China-backed infrastructure project in particular, which has raised alarms in both Washington and New Delhi, primarily because it positions China in the Western Indian Ocean through a potential naval presence in the Pakistani ports of Gwadar, Jiwani and Karachi. 

"CPEC has been at the heart of our economic transformation plan and we have left no quarter to declare its necessity for addressing our economic woes," said the general in his landmark speech on March 17. "While CPEC remains central to our vision, only seeing Pakistan through the CPEC prism is also misleading."

For some South Asia watchers, Bajwa's disclaimer was seen as Islamabad not entirely moving away from Xi Jinping's Belt and Road project, but putting some distance between itself as a sovereign entity and being seen as a Chinese satellite state.

"It's an imperative for Pakistan to be seen as an independent player. China is just one aspect of Pakistan's foreign policy pursuance. Yes, I have a problem with being bunched up entirely with China and seeing and being seen entirely through the Chinese prism. It's reductionist," said Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan's former foreign minister.

"There was a brief period in the previous government to completely be in the China camp, but it's time to take the center ground. However, Pakistan would be foolish to compromise what is a strong, pure and proper strategic alignment and strategic relationship with China. You can't wish a strategic relationship. It's based on an alignment of visions and reasons." 

Former Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar says China is "just one aspect" of Pakistan's foreign policy pursuance.   © Reuters

That quest for the "center ground" has long eluded Pakistan's policymakers. During the Cold War, the Islamic republic was firmly allied with the U.S. In the Middle East, it chose to be closer to the Saudi Arabia-led Sunni bloc, compromising its relationship with its Shia neighbor, Iran. And economically and militarily, it's now heavily dependent on Chinese financing and hardware.

"If you have only one patron, your options are limited," said Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "With a broader base, you can hope to elicit more benefits, from more players."

"Clearly, Pakistan is facing a confluence of constraints. Due to the Afghanistan withdrawal. Due to U.S.-China tensions in the Indo-Pacific. Due to COVID's economic repercussions. Due to debt repayments. Even due to its old allies Saudi Arabia and [the United Arab Emirates] engaging and trading more with India. And so it's trying to create some space for itself."

But there is much room for skepticism. Pakistan and India have fought wars in 1947-48, 1965, 1971 and 1999. They've had countless skirmishes, mostly in the disputed mountains and valleys of the Kashmir region, where Pakistan has long supported political and militant groups, and which India has recently annexed by withdrawing the special status granted to the region by its own constitution, as well as enforcing a severe lockdown on its 12 million residents, most of them Muslims.

"The recent thaw is not an olive branch from Pakistan. It's akin to Pakistan throwing the entire olive garden at India," said Mosharraf Zaidi, a former adviser in Pakistan's foreign ministry, who has led aid and development programs throughout South Asia. "The fact that India attacked Pakistan and then unilaterally and brutally annexed Kashmir should have signified the end of any kind of Pakistani efforts to try to normalize the region and de-escalate the conflict. And yet the Pakistanis have repeatedly reached out to India."

Since they were both partitioned into independence by the British, the two countries have also engaged in trade, culture and cyberwars, and topped those off with a nuclear arms race. They've even used cricket and movies, the most popular pastimes in the region, to make diplomatic inroads as well as to cut off contact. 

"Many Pakistanis will be rightly skeptical about expecting any sort of reciprocity from Narendra Modi's Hindu extremist government," said Zaidi. 

Kashmiris run for cover as Indian security forces fire teargas shells during clashes in Kashmir in September 2019.   © Reuters

But in New Delhi, the compulsions for normalization are also piling up, though at a different pace.

After losing men and ground in a military engagement with the China's People's Liberation Army in the Himalayas last year, the Indian military has been warning about the prospect of a two-front war with what Beijing's diplomats call the "Iron Brotherhood" between Pakistan and China.

Now, with a new U.S. administration, India is rethinking its own strategic calculus: operationalizing the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue, or the Quad -- the Indo-Pacific based partnership between the U.S., India, Japan and Australia that is fast emerging as a check on China -- and doubling down on its defense relationship with the Americans, even as it battles severe economic pressures triggered by COVID-19 as well as growing international criticism about its treatment of minorities, dissenters and the press.

"On the Indian side, there is the COVID challenge, economic slowdown, border tensions with China. They do not want problems on two fronts," said the former senior U.S. official who has worked in the region. "But they're also worried about the Biden administration coming in. The Democrats have historically been more concerned about human rights, India is concerned that U.S. concerns about India's actions in Kashmir and treatment of Muslims might take some of the bloom off the rose from the U.S.-India relationship."

"Though it is not evident publicly yet, these concerns could take some of the bloom off the rose from the U.S.-India relationship, to a degree," said the former diplomat. "But if the Indians are feeling the pressure, the Pakistanis are feeling a lot of pressure."

However, as he considers peace, India's Modi has a different constituency to worry about: the Hindu-nationalist base that got him elected and imagines an Akhund Bharat -- the Indian subcontinent minus Pakistan -- and is against normalizing ties. 

"Previously, Modi's base has been unhappy about him reaching out to Pakistan," said Brooking's Madan. "But given no impending general election and perceptions of him as strong on national security, he has the flexibility to see how things go. If talks fail, he can tell the world, 'look, we tried.' But If there is derailment due to a terrorist attack, then does he stay the course, give up on talks, or find a way to retaliate?"

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