It is widely accepted that the pursuit of “strategic autonomy” is a unique attribute of Indian foreign policy. The point, however, is that all countries, large or small, try to maximize their room for maneuver within the constraints in which they find themselves. Take the case of Pakistan.
During the Cold War, Pakistani diplomacy was brilliant in pursuing a special relationship with Mao’s China even as it signed American anti-Communist alliances. It became a bridge between the United States and China when they did not have relations with each other, facilitating secret diplomacy between Washington and Beijing in 1971. It was India that took hold. found at odds with the United States and China in the 1970s and had to look to the Soviet Union to rebalance the region.
As a new era of Sino-American confrontation unfolds and India heats up in the United States amid the deepening schism with China, Pakistan has difficult ground to negotiate. Pakistan cannot abandon China, its “iron brother”, which has been its most reliable external partner. Yet Rawalpindi does not want to be totally alienated from Washington in the new geopolitical contest between the United States and China.
As the United States withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, Pakistan is keen to build a relationship with Washington that is unrelated to American issues in Kabul. A wave of high-level contacts between Pakistan and the Biden administration over the past few days has generated much enthusiasm about a reset in bilateral ties.
How Pakistan copes with the new dynamic between the United States and China as well as how the worsening crisis in Afghanistan is handled would be of great interest to Delhi.
But first, a word on autonomy and alliances. Autonomy concerns the basic impulse to increase the degree of freedom; alliances consist of dealing with real or perceived threats to one’s security. Both are natural tendencies in international politics. How a nation balances the two imperatives depends on the circumstances. Joining an alliance does not mean giving up sovereignty. Within each alliance, there is a perpetual tension between seeking more commitments from the partner in exchange for limiting theirs.
India and Pakistan had good reasons for choosing different foreign policy paths after independence. Nehru’s India believed that she had no external threats and was completely confident in her ability to navigate the world on her own. Pakistan’s insecurities towards India meant that it was hungry for alliances. And as the Anglo-Americans sought partners in the crusade against world communism, Pakistan signed a bilateral security treaty with the United States and joined the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and the ‘Central organization of the treaty in the mid-1950s.
Although SEATO and CENTO did not last long, they generated a lot of goodwill for the Pakistani military in the West. Pakistan may have been in the same bed with the West, but its dream was not to fight communism in Asia but to balance India. Communist China quickly understood this. Rather than aiming for Pakistan’s alliance with a West that was intensely hostile to Beijing in the 1950s, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai saw the possibility of exploiting Pakistan’s insecurities over India.
At the Bandung Conference on Afro-Asian Solidarity in 1955, Zhou charmed Pakistani Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Bogra. Pakistan, which denounced Communist China at the start of the conference, was much more conciliatory towards Beijing at the end of it.
As Pakistan’s relations with the United States have grown and waned, its relations with China have grown steadily. Pakistan had reason to be deeply disappointed with the United States, which could not prevent India from liberating Bangladesh in 1971, despite the security partnership between the two countries.
This anger did not prevent Pakistan from embracing the United States again after the Soviet Union sent its troops to Afghanistan in late 1979. While the Pakistani military worked with the United States to promote a jihad against the Russian occupation, it used the renewed partnership with Washington to protect its clandestine nuclear weapons program – built with generous help from China – from US non-proliferation laws.
The United States and Pakistan reconnected in 2001 as Washington sought physical access and intelligence support to support its intervention in Afghanistan following the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11. While offering support to the United States in Afghanistan, he managed to keep alive the Taliban which was undermining American efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Now the United States wants Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to agree to a peaceful transition to a new political order in Afghanistan. In other words, for all the billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan over the past two decades, the United States could not dictate terms to Rawalpindi.
The Pakistani military, however, fears that its influence in Washington will wane once the United States turns its back on Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific. Pakistan does not want to enter the Indo-Pacific crossfire between the United States and China. He would also like to reduce the growing importance of India in the American Indo-Pacific strategy.
Delhi should not underestimate Pakistan’s ability to adapt to changing global currents. Contrary to its image in India as a client state, Pakistan has been able to use its great alliances of power for its own benefit. But three major problems now complicate Pakistan’s strategic autonomy.
One is its relative economic decline; Pakistan’s expected aggregate GDP, at around $ 300 billion in 2021, is 10 times lower than India’s. Pakistan’s per capita GDP, at around $ 1,260, is just over half that of Bangladesh. Second, Pakistan’s persistent obsessions with separating Kashmir from India and expanding its political influence over Afghanistan; both seem elusive despite massive political investments by the Pakistani military.
Not surprisingly, there is a recognition in Rawalpindi that Pakistan needs a realignment – from geopolitics to geoeconomics and from permanent war with neighbors to peace of some sort. This was the message from the head of the Pakistani army, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, in March. But translating this into politics is proving difficult.
Meanwhile, a third, less discussed element complicates Pakistan’s international policy. Making Islam a political instrument and strengthening religious extremism seemed fiendishly smart decades ago, but today these forces have taken on a life of their own and severely limit the ability of the Pakistani state to build internal coherence. and expand international options.
In the 1950s, Pakistan’s prospects looked much better than those of many countries in East Asia and the Middle East. By neglecting economic development, letting magnificent obsessions cloud common sense, and favoring feudal and premodern ideologies, Pakistan quickly fell behind its peers.
It will not be wise to exclude Pakistan’s positive reinvention; no country has a greater interest in it than India. For now, however, Pakistan offers a cautionary tale of the dangers of wasting a nation’s strategic advantages – including a critical geopolitical location it had inherited and the powerful partnerships that have arisen.
The writer is director of the Institute for South Asian Studies and editor-in-chief of international affairs for The Indian Express