AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Cold wars are won not just on the battlefield, but through bluff and deception, and over the last two years, Xi Jinping has proven himself adept at both compared to the Biden administration.
While the Biden team tried to bully Saudi Arabia to lower oil prices, China negotiated a détente between Tehran and Riyadh. When the Biden administration tried to bribe companies to re-shore to the United States, Beijing resorted to more blunt methods of persuasion, raiding the offices of major international firms, including Deloitte and Bain over the last few weeks.
The most recent example of this jujitsu may be among the more alarming: while the President of South Korea sang for guests at the White House, China completed a feasibility study on the costs of an 1,800 mile railway to connect Pakistan’s port of Gwadar with Xinjiang, China.
The plan represents one of the more disastrous strategic consequences of the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan. While the loss of American prestige may have encouraged Putin to invade Ukraine, and the undignified flight handed millions of Afghans over to the tender mercies of the Taliban, the greatest strategic fallout may be the “loss” of Pakistan to China.
Eighteen months after the fall of Kabul, there is no pretense that Pakistan is a partner, or even friend of the United States. On the contrary, in a climate of rising anti-Americanism and in the face of perceived Indian-American rapprochement, Pakistan has thrown in its lot with China.
No one who followed the visit of Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff Syed Asim Munir to Beijing last week or the phone call between Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif could have any doubt where Pakistan’s loyalties lie.
According to the admittedly biased Chinese readout:
“Munir said that China is Pakistan’s ironclad brother. The Pakistan-China friendship is higher than mountains, deeper than oceans and sweeter than honey. Continuously deepening the all-weather strategic cooperative partnership between Pakistan and China is the cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Pakistan firmly supports China’s development and strength. No matter how the international situation changes, Pakistan will always stand with China through thick and thin and build a shared future. The Pakistani army firmly supports the further development of Pakistan-China relations.”
The call between Li and Sharif, even if less lyrical, should be no less concerning to American officials. Sharif again used the phrase “iron-clad brothers” while pledging that “Pakistan firmly pursues the one-China policy and staunchly supports China on all issues concerning China’s core interests.”
Those core interests include the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which includes the planned rail line at an estimated cost of $60 billion. The Chinese government’s own feasibility report argued the project “had the potential to reshape trade and geopolitics across the Eurasian continent,” and should be supported even if China had to foot the entire bill.
Critically, the project would reduce China’s reliance on the Straits of Malacca, the narrow sea lane between Singapore and Malaysia through which the Pentagon estimates almost 80% of Chinese oil flows.
Despite warm words about maximum cooperation with Russia, China still imports most of its energy from the Middle East, which explains Beijing’s efforts to displace U.S. influence from the region. U.S. strategists have rightfully identified China’s dependence on imported energy as a major weak link in Beijing’s strategic position, and most speculation about a potential conflict has the U.S. moving rapidly to cut off China’s energy imports.
This would be accomplished by blockading the Straits of Malacca between Malaysia and Singapore. The proposed Pakistani rail line would render such an approach impossible. Outside of the Straits of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, no chokepoints exist between Karachi and the major petroleum producing states.
Pakistan was never a particularly effective ally for the United States during the War on Terror, and for American veterans and policymakers exhausted after two decades of duplicity from Islamabad, it will be tempting to respond with a firm “good riddance.”
There is something to be said for this attitude. With the benefit of hindsight, the U.S. decision to choose Pakistan in the Indo-Pakistani conflict appears to have been among the worst trades of the Cold War era, and one of the few where US policymakers made the inarguable worst of the deal. If not on par with the Soviets choosing the Arab states over Israel, it is nonetheless a mistake the United States is still paying for today when it comes to India’s refusal to break with Russia over Ukraine.
The danger is that whatever the flaws of the Pakistani alliance, and however better a partner India would make, the Biden administration has managed to alienate Pakistan without securing the support of India and is at serious risk of ending up with neither.
Pakistan’s loss is the result not merely of the American abandonment of Afghanistan, but of the behavior of the Biden administration toward a major domestic political crisis that ensured all sides believed the U.S. was acting against them.
In 2018, Imran Khan, a former cricket player (with a Jewish ex-wife) turned strict Islamist anti-corruption campaigner swept to power with military backing. In late 2021, Khan fell out with the military as he attempted to interfere in personnel assignments, with the result that under military pressure, enough of his own MPs joined with the opposition (temporarily uniting the feuding Bhutto and Sharif clans) to oust him from office.
Khan, who had been critical of the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan, had been on the receiving end of brutal criticism from the Biden team in turn, and he blamed his military’s betrayal of him, which followed on the fall of Kabul, on a CIA plot.
Orchestrating Machiavellian maneuvers on the scale which brought down Khan seems deeply out of character for the otherwise lethargic Biden national security team, who often seem to forget South Asia exists at all. But the tone deaf combination of criticism of Khan, direct engagement with the military plotters during his ouster, and the lack of any criticism of his successors when they refused to hold new elections, combined to reinforce that perception.
Yet if Khan’s supporters believe America is behind his opponents, the lack of any real American support of the current government, the certainty they will lose without it, and the fear of the vengeance Khan will wreak if he returns has led them to seek Beijing’s protection. The result has been both factions inside Pakistan turning against the United States.
Perhaps the loss of Pakistan (and there are functionally no anti-American parties or institutions left in 2023) could be counteracted by developing closer ties with India, but the Biden team has failed to reach out. The U.S. has seemed more concerned with rebuking India for internal affairs, such as refusing to mandate burqas for Muslim students in government schools, and moralizing about India’s refusal to break relations with Russia when Washington won’t sell New Delhi weapons, than with forging a closer relationship.
Biden has visited neither India nor Pakistan. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken did meet with Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, but a readout of the meeting merely stated that the two “discussed how to mitigate the global impacts of Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine, the United States and India’s cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, the successful launch of the initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology, and regional issues,” – a far cry from the tone accompanying Sino-Pakistani meetings.
The United States needs to move quickly before it loses South Asia altogether. The hour is late, but it is not yet midnight.
India has close cultural and economic ties with the West. But the region has to be treated as a priority, not because of the War on Terror or nation building in Afghanistan, but because if American officials are not careful, the struggle for Taiwan and the Pacific will be lost in Pakistan and India.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.