Widely respected South Asia expert Michael Kugelman, who is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief as well the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, published a piece at Foreign Policy on 22 July titled “Pakistan’s Regional Diplomacy Dilemma.”
He accurately describes Pakistan’s geo-economic grand strategy and the recent gains that it has made towards advancing it. These importantly include February’s agreement to build a trilateral railway with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) as well as the newly established quadrilateral framework between those three and the US focused on connectivity.
Mr. Kugelman also did well highlighting three challenges inherent to Pakistan’s geo-economic strategy. These are India’s undisputed heavyweight status (with a particular focus on its vaccine diplomacy, geo-economic goals through BIMSTEC, and continued troubles with Pakistan), the recent terrorist attack in northwestern Pakistan that killed nine Chinese nationals, and deteriorating relations with Afghanistan.
He concludes that “its chief infrastructure partner’s concerns about worsening security risks in Pakistan are nothing to sneeze at” and that Kabul might balk at Islamabad retaining its influential role in the Afghan peace process. As for the Indian dimension, it’s earlier implied that New Delhi’s geo-economic plans might be at Pakistan’s expense.
Setting the record straight
The resultant dilemma arguably is not as dramatic as Mr. Kugelman portrays it. The security concerns that he touched upon are manageable, especially if Afghan-emanating threats can be contained, including by proxy via the Taliban which pledged not to host foreign militants if it returns to power as seems likely sometime in the future.
Regarding Afghanistan, Kabul doesn’t have much of a choice when it comes to Islamabad’s role in the peace process. Pakistan is already recognized as a member of the Extended Troika by China, Russia, and the US. It will not be excluded from relevant talks just because of a questionable incident that recently took place in its capital. Islamabad might not host peace talks as soon as it planned, but it won’t sit them out either.
Regarding the implied zero-sum outcome of India’s geo-economic plans, there is nothing stopping foreign partners from supporting both India’s and Pakistan’s. They are not mutually exclusive but could even be perceived as complementary from a foreign investment perspective.
Although India is the South Asian heavyweight, Pakistan recently succeeded in becoming the convergence point of Chinese, Russian, and US economic interests through CPEC and its de facto northern branch corridor of PAKAFUZ. It’s important to point out that PAKAFUZ serves a dual purpose for Russia and the US: Russia can use it to reach the Indian Ocean Region while the US can utilize this corridor for expanding its economic influence in the Central Asian Republics.
— Andrew Korybko (@AKorybko) July 23, 2021
These observations suggest that Pakistan’s regional dilemma is not as dramatic as Mr. Kugelman portrays it. There is no realistic scenario in which China would reduce its commitment to CPEC nor in which Pakistan’s role in the Afghan peace process would also be reduced.
India’s regional heavyweight status and especially its geo-economic plans with BIMSTEC won’t negatively impact Pakistan’s geo-economic strategy because the world’s three most important Great Powers – the US, China, and Russia – nowadays have converging economic interests in Pakistan through CPEC and PAKAFUZ.
There’s no doubt that obstacles remain to the successful implementation of Pakistan’s geo-economic strategy, but they are not as serious as some experts believe.
Andrew Korybko is a political analyst, radio host, and regular contributor to several online outlets. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics, specifically the US strategy in Eurasia. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.