The US–Pakistan–China nexus
9 Feb 2018|

On 19 January, Defense Secretary James Mattis released an unclassified summary of the Congress-mandated US national defence strategy. In this administration’s outlook, the US military faces five major security challenges: China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and terrorists. The first two are elevated above the other three across the conflict spectrum because both China and Russia are ‘revisionist powers’ bent on ‘undermining the international order from within’. In particular, the top threat, China, ‘is leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage’ in pursuit of ‘Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term’.

It’s not clear that American strategists have grasped how the first and fifth threats intersect in Afghanistan—which now has become America’s longest war ever. Worse, it’s a war that’s being lost. But even President Donald Trump, with his penchant for straight-talking—not always accurate, but always entertaining—has retreated from labelling Afghanistan a costly failure and the pursuit of victory there a mirage.

In characteristically blunt language, Trump seems to have intuited the truth that the epicentre of the war—and where it has been lost—is not Afghanistan but Pakistan. On 1 January, in his first tweet of 2018, Trump vented that the US has ‘foolishly’ given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over 15 years, ‘and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan … No more!’ Pakistan reacted angrily, accusing Trump of being bitter for the defeat in Afghanistan. But Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai welcomed the tweet for vindicating the argument that the war on terror had to be prosecuted by bombing not Afghan villages but ‘sanctuaries beyond Afghanistan’.

It’s hard to dispute that support from the Pakistani ‘deep state’ (or military-intelligence complex) for the shadowy Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban has been responsible for most of the nearly 2,500 US soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Of course, Australia has skin in this game too. Since Trump’s tweet, Washington has suspended substantial security assistance to Pakistan.

A major difficulty in holding Pakistan to account for its two-faced duplicity is who to engage with: the civilian government or the military brass? The latter control security policy. Trump’s tweet also reopened a longstanding debate on the direction of influence between Islamabad and Washington. After 9/11, President George W. Bush told President General Pervez Musharraf to side with the US or be treated as an enemy. In word Musharraf became an ally, but in deed he continued to run with the terrorist hares while hunting with the American hound.

Islamabad’s duplicity became impossible to conceal with the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden in a highly visible fortified compound barely a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point. Speaking in Islamabad on 21 October 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously warned: ‘You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours. Eventually, those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in their backyard.’

For all that, the Obama administration failed in its efforts to squeeze Pakistan into suspending support for the terrorist networks. Now some analysts believe Trump’s very volatility and unpredictability may force Pakistan’s generals to recalculate the costs of frustrating the world’s most powerful nation under a president committed to putting America first regardless of the costs to even the most steadfast allies in Europe, Asia and the Pacific.

Skeptics counter that Pakistan still controls critical supply routes for US troops in Afghanistan, that a collapse of Pakistan will risk a fusion of Islamic terrorism and nuclear threats, and that Islamabad has an alternative to the US in China. The Beijing–Islamabad bonhomie is popularly described in both countries as being ‘higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the deepest ocean, and sweeter than honey’.

The chokehold on supply routes has become less critical with the shrinking US military footprint in Afghanistan, while the China card may be exaggerated. For one thing, Beijing has nothing like Washington’s depth of influence in the international financial system and its institutions. For another, targeted sanctions on Pakistani officers will hit hard because almost every high-ranking officer has immediate family members living in the US, and ambitious students from elite families aspire to enrol in Harvard and Princeton, not Beijing and Tsinghua universities. And then there’s the growing international awareness of, and concern about, China’s predatory ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ that has curtailed, for example, Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over its Hambantota port.

Accordingly, Pakistan’s hitherto highly successful strategy of negotiating for continued US aid with a gun to its own head may have passed its use-by date. Meanwhile, a tweet-addicted president will instil the perception of a perfidious Pakistan deep into popular American culture, even as support for Pakistan has collapsed in the US media, think tanks and Congress.

To come back to the new US defence strategy, the China relationship has paid rich dividends to Pakistan vis-à-vis India. Among Westerners, only a few regional specialists realise that a primary motivation behind Beijing’s cultivation of Pakistan has been the policy of confining India’s power, influence and footprint to the subcontinent. The re-emergence of the quadrilateral security dialogue among Australia, India, Japan and the US will raise India’s profile as a consequential Asia–Pacific power. With the authoritative identification of China as the top US security threat and the Asia–Pacific as the primary theatre of strategic competition, the Beijing–Islamabad axis will add to the depth of Pakistan’s problems in its relations with Washington.