Russia & China line up to play the Pak-US spat

Russia & China line up to play the Pak-US spat

Salman Rafi Sheikh,
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While the US decision to suspend all security aid to Pakistan hasn’t come as a surprise, Pakistan is not the only country that has seen considerable deterioration in bi-lateral relations with the US. Since the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, a number of countries have slipped away from the US’ global axis, thanks to Trump’s decision to discard the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, which was the cardinal aspect of the Obama administration’s ‘Asia Pivot’ strategy, a strategy that aimed at re-balancing the US military forces to Asia and the Pacific to counter-balance China and Russia.  But this hasn’t happened and the obvious result has been a marked decrease in the US’ global influence, leading naturally to an increase in the influence of the US’ strategic peers, Russia and China.

While Pakistan’s slip away from the US isn’t the result of the failure of TPP, it cannot be gainsaid that Pakistan would have adopted a far more cautious policy if Pakistan had not already jumped on the Chinese bandwagon through CPEC and joined the SCO. And, if Pakistan hadn’t done that, the current crisis might not have happened.

While its significance cannot be denied, particularly with regard to the fact that the US is still militarily dominant in Afghanistan and that it has no intention of fully withdrawing, it cannot either be set aside that Pakistan’s own strategy might become instrumental in pushing the US out of the region. This is especially evident from the way Pakistan is engaging both Russia and China in Afghanistan—something that runs counter to the US’ crucial military and strategic objectives in Afghanistan.

As such, it is not just Pakistan’s alleged support to the Afghan Taliban that has become the bone of contention between the two countries as the US has been blaming Pakistan for the last one decade or so, it is the way Pakistan is changing the regional game, or the way Pakistan has become a party to the new game being set for the region, that has now incurred the wrath of the waning empire.

For instance, for last two-three years or so, Russia has been trying to position itself in as a key-player, and as a balancer, in Afghanistan. And, while the US has opposed almost all of Russian initiatives and even accused it of arming the Taliban, Pakistan has welcomed Russia, participated in all of its initiatives and supported a political settlement of the Afghan war.

What it means in both strategic and political terms is that Russia, just as it did in Syria, has projected itself as a player capable of gathering almost all regional players on the negotiating table—and, by doing this it has been able to project the US—once again—as a weak player incapable of wielding credible influence.

What, therefore, is irking the US is not what Pakistan is not doing against the Taliban; it is the prospect of a strong Russian presence—direct and indirect– in Afghanistan, making Russia an indispensable party to the Afghan end-game.

In other words, by successfully hosting talks in Afghanistan, Russia has made sure that it will be a part of any future settlement. And by directly shaping the situation on the ground, Russia will both ensure that its influence continues over the long term and force the US to recognize its role in the country.

And, Pakistan is the key to facilitate Russian objectives just as it has been a key country for the US in its longest ever war.

In addition to it, Pakistan’s participation in China’s Belt & Road Initiative has altogether changed the way it has been viewing Afghanistan for last 16 years. Fundamentally, it is clear to Pakistan, as it is to China, that CPEC’s success crucially depends upon Afghanistan’s participation, which might remain impossible as long as the country remains under US occupation; hence, Pakistan’s gradual shift away from the US block.

In fact, it was only in the third week of December that officials from Pakistan, Afghanistan and China met in China and announced that China and Pakistan are planning to extend the CPEC to Afghanistan. “In the long run, through Afghanistan, we will gradually connect the CPEC with the China-Central and Western Asia Economic Corridor”, said China’s foreign minister.

What, in this context, is clearly written on the wall is that the US will soon no longer be the only player in Afghanistan. Very soon, it will be facing a lot of competition from Russia and China and its policies will be facing a serious challenge from them. The Afghan game is most certainly on the verge of a major change.

Targeting Pakistan, therefore, is an outcome of the way Pakistan has been central to changing this game. This has been further reinforced by the support both Russia and China have extended to Pakistan in the wake of the on-going spat between Pakistan and the US.

According to Pakistan’s diplomatic sources, Pakistan has received telephonic assurances from Russia that Pakistan should not consider itself “isolated”. According to media reports, “The contacts with Russia after Trump’s statement have been encouraging. They support our view and are standing with us,” said a senior official at the foreign ministry who remains in contact with Moscow. He added: “Russia is willing to enhance the bilateral ties and engage further on defense. We have two big powers with us as Washington attempts to pressurize Pakistan.”

Such is the official mood in Beijing as well. Following the spat, Global Times, a Communist Party of China affiliated paper, published an editorial criticizing the US policies and upholding Pakistan’s stance on Afghanistan, stating clearly that “If the US and Pakistan break up, then Islamabad will be forced to move closer to China and Russia. Since China and Pakistan enjoy an all-weather strategic partnership of cooperation, Beijing will without doubt not give up on Islamabad.”

In this context, there remains little for the US to do to rein Pakistan back in its block. Certainly, Pakistan can face economic pressure from the US, and there remains little to doubt that the US might resume direct drone strikes in Pakistan, but the thing that can work to Pakistan’s advantage is that it remains the best territorial route for the US military’s logistical supplies—and it is only this thing that Pakistan can and must use to its advantage when the spat cools down and officials from both countries sit down to renegotiate terms of business.

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