Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, published a piece at Nikkei Asia on 23 July titled “China is a habit that Pakistan cannot break”.
He contrasts Pakistan’s excellent political ties with China with the currently troubled ones that it has with the US. Mr. Pantucci predicts that “In the years ahead, Washington is likely to look at Islamabad through the lens of its growing tensions with Beijing, with Pakistan was seen to be sitting firmly on China’s side.” That perception, he believes, will hinder Pakistan’s attempts to successfully balance between the world’s two most influential Great Powers.
This preexisting structural challenge is compounded by recent developments. Pakistan is losing its regional security significance to the US following America’s impending military withdrawal from Afghanistan. This is occurring in parallel with mounting Chinese concerns over its domestic security situation that might consequently reduce Pakistan’s regional economic significance to the People’s Republic, or so he implies.
Mr. Pantucci regards Pakistan’s outreaches to the US (which he thinks China views suspiciously) as unsuccessful, which compels “fealty” to China that in turn heightens US suspicions. He concludes that “Islamabad has backed itself into a complicated position that it will struggle to extricate itself from anytime soon.”
The improving Pak-Russian relations
With respect to Mr. Pantucci’s expertise on this subject, both the title of his piece and its conclusion are debatable since they don’t account for three important developments that are missing from his analysis.
These are the fast-moving Russian-Pakistani rapprochement that bolsters Islamabad’s balancing act between Great Powers, February’s agreement to create a Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway, and the recently established quadrilateral framework between the US and the PAKAFUZ countries focusing on regional connectivity.
All of these are extremely relevant to the subject that Mr. Pantucci wrote about. Their inclusion into the discussion could arguably lead to a different conclusion than the one that he reached.
The comprehensive improvement of Russian-Pakistani relations, especially following Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s trip to Islamabad in early April which was his first such visit in 9 years, confirms that the South Asian state is actively balancing between Great Powers in order to reduce perceived disproportionate dependence on any single one such as China or the US.
The two countries cooperate closely on the political and security situation in Afghanistan. They also recently agreed to construct the Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline. Furthermore, the Russian Foreign Minister pledged to strengthen Pakistan’s anti-terrorist military capabilities. Moscow’s growing role in Pakistan gives Islamabad more leverage for negotiating with Beijing and Washington.
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PAKAFUZ: A game-changer for Pakistan
Pertaining to PAKAFUZ, this project can rightly be described as a regional game-changer. Foreign Minister Lavrov’s enthusiastic endorsement of Central Asia-South Asia connectivity during a topical conference in Tashkent earlier this month can be interpreted as tacit support for this initiative.
Russia envisions utilizing PAKAFUZ in order to finally fulfill its centuries-long goal of reaching the Indian Ocean Region. This is supported by China too since PAKAFUZ essentially serves as CPEC’s northern branch (N-CPEC+). June’s virtual Foreign Minister’s meeting between the top Afghan, Chinese, and Pakistani diplomats also saw Kabul agree to rely more on CPEC’s terminal port of Gwadar, which implies a coordinated trilateral focus on PAKAFUZ to bring this about.
The reason why PAKAFUZ is such a game-changer is that even the US is interested in it despite this project de facto being part of its Chinese rival’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). The “New Quad’s” regional connectivity focus very strongly implies that the US wants to utilize PAKAFUZ for the purpose of expanding its economic influence into post-withdrawal Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics, the latter of which could improve their balancing capabilities vis-a-vis China and Russia with time.
This is similar to how Pakistan uses its newfound relations with Russia to bolster its own balancing act between China and the US. Importantly, the US’ emerging geo-economic policy doesn’t require excellent political ties with all parties like Pakistan to succeed.
Pakistan in a strong position?
With these developments in mind, none of which were addressed in Mr. Pantucci’s piece, it can be argued that the title of his article and its conclusion aren’t consistent with the facts.
Pakistan is actively balancing between China, Russia, and the US to differing extents, which challenges his claim that “China is a habit that Pakistan cannot break”.
The observation that rivals Russia and the US are equally interested in PAKAFUZ and improving their relations with Pakistan partially for the purpose of capitalizing off of this project contradicts his conclusion that. “Islamabad has backed itself into a complicated position that it will struggle to extricate itself from anytime soon.”
On the contrary, Pakistan is in a very promising position due to its new multi-alignment policy.
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.