The rise of Imran Khan as Pakistan’s Prime Minister might have been thought by some to herald a sea change in policy towards the US, but Islamabad will probably continue to responsibly manage the downward trajectory in bilateral ties with Washington and is unlikely to take any proactive measures that could suddenly alter the state of affairs between the two, even though it will proactively craft backup plans for what it should do in the event that the US initiates military and or economic provocations against it.
“Naya Pakistan” And Its Priorities
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s (PTI) victory in Pakistan’s latest elections in July 2018 led to the premiership of Imran Khan and the beginning of what many are describing as the era of “Naya Pakistan” (“New Pakistan”), and while the country is bound to experience a lot of internal change during this time, it is unclear exactly how different its foreign policy priorities are going to be. The previous government successfully charted a new path for Pakistan to take by hosting CPEC and entering into a fast-moving rapprochement with Russia, both of which are constructively contributing to the country’s rising role as the Zipper of Eurasia in the emerging multipolar world order. The chief foreign policy task ahead of the new government is to avoid any sudden shocks that could offset this geostrategic reorientation, though that also naturally implies managing the downward trajectory of bilateral relations with the US.
The US is trying to contain Pakistan and is accordingly acting as an agent of regional destabilization. This will inevitably lead to domestic consequences for the country that could hinder the effective implantation of Prime Minister Khan’s comprehensive reform agenda, which could in turn be politicized by his opponents to advance their own interests. It is for this reason why “Naya Pakistan” must remain focused on the US, for better and for worse, because Washington is in a position to simultaneously sabotage the new government’s international and domestic plans. Islamabad is acutely aware of this, and that is why it is unlikely to proactively make any moves that could suddenly alter the state of affairs between it and Washington, though that is not to say that it will not draft various plans to implement in response to any unfortunate scenarios initiated by the US.
The Unlikelihood Of A Rapprochement
Prime Minister Khan’s government has sent friendly signals towards the US and openly said that it wants to improve bilateral relations, though, this will most likely fall on deaf ears. Ideally, Pakistan would succeed in encouraging much more American investment in order to balance Washington’s economic interests in neighboring India and also make it a stakeholder in country’s stability, thus diminishing the chances that the kinetic manifestations of the Hybrid War on CPEC will intensify. Even though it is approaching the US with an olive branch in hand, “Naya Pakistan” will no longer accept the US making any disrespectful demands of it like before, insisting that the only partnership between the two must be an equal one instead of the lopsided relationship that characterized the previous decades, especially the last two after 9/11.
It is unlikely that even the most attractive investment privileges would convince the US to abandon its Hybrid War on CPEC and rethink its game-changing military-strategic partnership with India because this pivot is being undertaken mostly because of geopolitical factors related to “containing” China, which is why no one in Pakistan should get their hopes up and think that the policy of America issuing one-sided demands is over. To the contrary, it is expected to continue, which is why Pakistan needs to have various plans in place to implement at a moment’s notice for whenever the US takes the initiative to further disengage from its erstwhile partnership. A perfect example of this in practice is the military training deal that Pakistan clinched with Russia right after the US decided that it would no longer be fulfilling this role.
The Importance Of Proper Perception Management
Perceptions are important too, so while there might be certain benefits in framing some reactions to American moves as being just that – reactions – other times it may be to Pakistan’s advantage to emphasize the foresight that went into planning them beforehand, with the narrative employed depending on the intended audience. Relatedly, Pakistan needs to be careful how it plays its hand. The US, being largely in control of the relationship’s dynamics, might exploit any of its counterpart’s proactive policies towards other countries (and especially America’s multipolar rivals) to paint Pakistan in a negative light, after which it can then “justify” its own preplanned provocations against it as being in “defensive reaction” to whatever it is that Islamabad is doing. For example, the optics would have been entirely different if Islamabad did not masterfully time its training deal with Moscow to coincide with Washington’s suspension.
The principle that should be at the back of every Pakistani diplomat’s mind must be “tit-for-tat”, “action-reaction”, and the focus of their work must be on preparing various responses to whatever else it might be that the US decides to do against their country. It should be taken for granted that the current trajectory would not be reversed, but can only be responsibly managed, if not by both sides then at least by the Pakistani one. Competent experts can predict what the US might do next, which could therefore guide the country’s policymakers in the direction that is needed so that they are not taken off guard by anything that eventually happens. Correspondingly, the US response to Pakistan’s foreign policy actions can also be predicted, allowing decision makers to foresee what moves it will probably make to whatever Islamabad does.
Both great powers are therefore expected to continue interacting in such a manner, predicting their counterpart’s moves and sometimes taking the initiative to preempt them in a delicate international dance that is destined to end with their comprehensive disengagement from one another. It is not in Pakistan’s interests to suddenly alter this state of affairs by taking too radical a course of action against American interests such as abruptly cutting off the US military’s transit privileges to Afghanistan. It should still be however, prepared to do something of the sort if provoked under the relevant circumstances, knowing fully well that this is the response that America anticipated if its actions warranted it. Pakistan should also prepare a plan in case US sanctions it just as fiercely as it is doing against Iran in order to undermine CPEC.
“Naya Pakistan’s” focus must be on responsibly managing the downward trajectory of relations with the US in order to pay full attention to the domestic reform process and consequently deliver on the many promises that the PTI made to the population. The US has a strategic interest in staging sudden provocations to “delegitimize” the new government by distracting it with externally provoked or exacerbated crises in the military and economic realms, respectively.
Andrew Korybko is a Moscow-based journalist and geopolitical analyst.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.