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Pakistan’s China-USA Policy: De-hyphenation or Zero Sum?


In order to put its economy back on the rails, Pakistan needs to maintain good relations not just with China, but also put its bilateral ties with the US back on the rails. Given the deterioration in Washington-Beijing ties, it remains to be seen if Islamabad can manage the same. While Pakistan, like many other countries, has said that it does not want to be pushed into making any choices, it remains to be seen whether this will be possible in the changing geopolitical landscape.

The assassination attempt on former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on November 3, 2022 has understandably drawn media attention not just in Pakistan, but globally. Khan, who was shot at, survived the attempt though he sustained an injury in his right leg when his convoy was attacked in the town of Wazirabad – in Pakistan’s Punjab province – during the course of the Pakistan-Tehreek-E-Insaaf (PTI) ‘long march’ (the key demand of the march was early elections).

The assassination attempt on Khan comes at an important time – the current Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, who has served for 6 years, is likely to retire at the end of this November. While Khan may have been initially viewed as an army puppet and was even referred to as the ‘selected PM’ by his opponents, Imran Khan’s ties with the army had begun to deteriorate in 2021. His anti-US comments during his last days in office which led to a further dip in Pakistan’s bilateral ties with Washington proved to be the tipping point, and have been cited as the key reason for Khan’s downfall. The army had openly contradicted Khan’s anti-US statements. Days before his ouster from the position of PM, Khan had accused the US of plotting his downfall, and even after his removal, he has continued to do so, while the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which are part of the ruling coalition now —  and were then part of the opposition — had criticized Khan for his anti-US remarks dubbing them as irresponsible.

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Imran Khan’s anti-US comments during his last days in office led to a further dip in Pakistan’s bilateral ties with Washington and proved to be the tipping point for his downfall.

Putting Pakistan-US ties back on track

Khan’s successor Shehbaz Sharif, also the brother of former PM Nawaz Sharif and current supremo of PML-N, has focused on putting Pakistan-US ties back on track. The US decision to provide USD 450 million sustenance package for Pakistan’s F16 fleet, as well as the humanitarian assistance provided by Washington to Pakistan for flood relief, and some of the statements emanating from the Biden administration where the US has spoken about strengthening ties with Pakistan signal that there has been a thaw between Washington and Islamabad (it remains to be seen whether this lasts for long though). While improving ties with the US is important, Pakistan also realizes the importance of China, and Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif embarked upon a visit to Beijing (November 1-2, 2022) where both sides discussed the progress of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Project (CPEC) project and the Chinese President expressed concern with regard to the security of Chinese nationals working on CPEC projects (Beijing has also repeatedly expressed its unhappiness with the slow progress of the CPEC project). It has been decided to provide Chinese nationals, working on CPEC projects, with bulletproof vehicles for all outdoor travel.

Pakistan Finance Minister Ishaq Dar announced that Pakistan had sought a cumulative loan to the tune of USD 8.8 billion from China, and Chinese President Xi Jinping had responded positively to this demand.

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The US decision to provide USD 450 million sustenance package for Pakistan’s F16 fleet, as well as the humanitarian assistance provided by Washington to Pakistan for flood relief signal that there has been a thaw between Washington and Islamabad.

Managing the Pakistan-China-US triangle

A two-day conference organized in Washington DC (October 31, 2022- September 1, 2022) by top Pakistani and US think tanks along with the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University saw the participation of some prominent scholars and US and Pakistani strategic analysts. During the conference titled ‘The future of the US-Pakistan relationship’, a number of points were discussed.

The first point which was highlighted was that while Pakistan wanted to improve ties with the US, it did not want to get embroiled in the geopolitical rivalry between other countries and be pushed into a situation where it needs to make choices (this point has been made by many other countries). Pakistan has been repeatedly saying that it does not want to restrict its cooperation with the US to the strategic sphere, but also focus on economic cooperation. It is not just the current government led by Shehbaz Sharif, but even the previous PTI government led by Imran Khan which had been pitching for a holistic relationship with the US. The other very interesting point made by Yun Sun, Director China Programme at Stimson Centre, was that China was not unhappy with the improvement in ties between US and Pakistan. This is important because the analysis of the Pakistan-China-US trilateral is often done from a zero-sum prism. For instance, the US decision to provide  USD 450 million for Pakistan’s F16 fleet has been attributed to the US wanting to prevent Pakistan from moving closer to China. Similarly, it has been argued that Beijing is unhappy with the recent warmth in Washington-Islamabad ties, though if one were to go by Shehbaz Sharif’s Beijing visit, this does not seem to be the case.

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While Pakistan wants to improve ties with the US, it does not want to get embroiled in the geopolitical rivalry between other countries and be pushed into a situation where it needs to make choices. Further, as per Yun Sun of Stimson Centre, China was not unhappy with the improvement in US – Pakistan ties.

In conclusion, the Pakistan-China-US triangle has always been complex. With the deterioration of ties between Washington and Beijing, Pakistan is faced with the onerous responsibility of balancing ties with both countries. Given the domestic political instability and the ever-changing geopolitical architecture globally, it remains to be seen whether it can do so successfully for long.

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About the author

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst. He is associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana.


Tridivesh Singh Maini

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst. He is associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana.

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