Pak­istani pol­icy piv­ots to­ward China as U.S. em­braces re­gional ri­val In­dia

Islamabad fears pres­sure from White House over charges of abet­ting ter­ror

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY PAMELA CON­STA­BLE pamela.con­sta­ble@wash­post.com

islamabad, pak­istan — The words from Pak­istan’s top for­eign pol­icy ad­viser could not have been clearer. At a news con­fer­ence wel­com­ing China’s for­eign min­is­ter to the Pak­istani cap­i­tal last week, Sar­taj Aziz de­clared, “Pak­istan’s re­la­tions with China are the corner­stone of our for­eign pol­icy.”

It was a blunt sig­nal of change by a coun­try that has long been a key ally and aid re­cip­i­ent of the United States, from the na­tions’ Cold War al­liance against Soviet med­dling in Afghanistan to a more re­cent, un­easy part­ner­ship in the fight against Is­lamist ter­ror­ism in the re­gion. To­day, Pak­istan con­tin­ues to re­ceive hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in U.S. an­nual sup­port.

But Islamabad’s po­lit­i­cal pivot from Wash­ing­ton to Beijing, al­ready its dom­i­nant in­vestor and in­creas­ingly im­por­tant global in­ter­locu­tor, is hardly sur­pris­ing, ex­perts said.

Pak­istani of­fi­cials have been wor­ried for months that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will put heavy pres­sure on their gov­ern­ment, pos­si­bly by cut­ting aid or even declar­ing it a “state spon­sor of ter­ror­ism” — a giant black mark — be­cause of com­plaints by Afghan au­thor­i­ties, U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials and mem­bers of Congress that Pak­istan con­tin­ues to har­bor anti-Afghan in­sur­gents.

At the same time, Islamabad has been con­cerned about Wash­ing­ton’s emerg­ing friend­ship with In­dia, Pak­istan’s much larger, nu­clear-armed ri­val and neigh­bor. Last week’s up­beat state visit to Wash­ing­ton by In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, who was re­ceived en­thu­si­as­ti­cally by Pres­i­dent Trump, raised new alarm bells here.

On Thurs­day, Pak­istani news­pa­pers fea­tured a photo of Trump and Modi hug­ging good­bye ac­com­pa­nied by anx­ious head­lines and a testy state­ment from Pak­istan’s For­eign Min­istry that called a joint state­ment by the two lead­ers “sin­gu­larly un­help­ful” in achiev­ing sta­bil­ity in South Asia and said it “ag­gra­vates an al­ready tense sit­u­a­tion.” The min­istry also said China had en­dorsed Pak­istan’s view.

Pak­istan was es­pe­cially up­set that Modi and Trump spoke about the im­por­tance of rein­ing in re­gional ter­ror­ism — re­fer­ring in­di­rectly to Pak­istan’s al­leged sup­port of anti-Afghan in­sur­gents — but ig­nored Pak­istan’s de­nun­ci­a­tions of hu­man rights abuses by In­dian forces against pro­test­ers in the con­tested border re­gion of Kash­mir, as well as its charges of In­dian sup­port for anti-Pak­istan mil­i­tants.

“Those who seek to ap­pro­pri­ate a lead­er­ship role in the fight against ter­ror are them­selves re­spon­si­ble for much of the ter­ror un­leashed in Pak­istan,” the For­eign Min­istry said, re­fer­ring to In­dia. Pak­istani com­men­ta­tors sug­gested that Wash­ing­ton, in turn, was try­ing to please In­dia by sud­denly plac­ing Syed Salahud­din, the long­time Pak­istan-based leader of a Kash­miri Mus­lim rebel group, on a list of global ter­ror­ists. In­te­rior Min­is­ter Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said the United States had be­gun “speak­ing In­dia’s lan­guage.”

Pak­istani of­fi­cials and com­men­ta­tors also ex­pressed con­cern about new agree­ments be­tween In­dia and the United States on sales of Preda­tor drones and other Amer­i­can de­fense equip­ment, as well as com­mer­cial air­craft. Pak­istan has had a long-stand­ing mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence re­la­tion­ship with the United States, and it has fought three lim­ited wars with In­dia since the 1960s.

But the more im­me­di­ate con­cern for Pak­istan is Afghanistan. In re­cent months, as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion de­bates pol­icy op­tions in the re­gion, Pak­istani of­fi­cials have at­tempted to shake Afghan ac­cu­sa­tions of pro­mot­ing cross-border in­sur­gents and have been quick to send sym­pa­thetic mes­sages for Afghan ter­ror­ism vic­tims, but their ges­tures have so far been re­buffed.

At this point, of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton ap­pear likely to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan but have given few hints about how they will ap­proach Pak­istan amid a cho­rus of calls for them to pun­ish or iso­late it. In­dia, in sharp con­trast, is a close ally and bene­fac­tor of Afghanistan, which is ap­pre­ci­ated in Wash­ing­ton but seen by Pak­ista­nis of all po­lit­i­cal stripes as a di­rect threat to Pak­istan’s in­flu­ence.

“Trump has no busi­ness giv­ing In­dia an in­ter­ven­tion­ist role in Afghanistan when, un­like In­dia, it is Pak that shares a border with Afghanistan,” Im­ran Khan, the lead­ing po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent of Pak­istani Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif, tweeted Thurs­day. The joint state­ment by Trump and Modi, he said in a fol­low-up tweet, “has re­moved the fig leaf of moral­ity and jus­tice in U.S. for­eign pol­icy.”

Frus­trated that the world fails to see its point of view and that Wash­ing­ton may be pulling away from a re­la­tion­ship Pak­istan con­sid­ered per­ma­nent if strained, Pak­istan has now en­listed China’s help as a me­di­a­tor with Afghanistan, the main is­sue that brought For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi to Islamabad last week, af­ter first stop­ping in Kabul.

In the news con­fer­ence here, Wang said Pak­istan was play­ing a “vi­tal role” to bring peace and sta­bil­ity to the re­gion, and a spokesman for his of­fice de­clared that Pak­istan has been “at the front line of the coun­terter­ror­ism fight.” Aziz, in turn, de­scribed Pak­istan’s re­la­tion­ship with China as “strate­gic,” mul­ti­di­men­sional and “all-weather.”

Some Pak­istani com­men­ta­tors have warned that Pak­istan is be­com­ing too eco­nom­i­cally de­pen­dent on China and has pinned too many hopes on a re­la­tion­ship that may be driven largely by Beijing’s search for prof­itable in­vest­ment re­turns and for plat­forms to dis­play its global in­flu­ence.

But so far, China’s foray into the mis­trust­ful thicket of AfghanPak­istani re­la­tions ap­pears to have been low-key and help­ful. It pre­vi­ously helped ad­vance pro­pos­als by Pak­istan to ar­range peace talks be­tween the Afghan gov­ern­ment and the Tal­iban, al­though they even­tu­ally foundered, and it is now un­der­tak­ing some shut­tle diplo­macy be­tween the two cap­i­tals.

Wang’s re­cent vis­its to Kabul and Islamabad led to three-way state­ments call­ing for greater co­op­er­a­tion on a va­ri­ety of top­ics, a cri­sis mech­a­nism to avert con­fronta­tions, a three-way di­a­logue among the coun­tries’ for­eign min­is­ters, and a re­vival of the Quadri­lat­eral Co­or­di­na­tion Group that orig­i­nally tried to ar­range the Tal­iban peace talks.

Given the terse and an­gry tone of re­cent ex­changes be­tween Afghan and Pak­istani of­fi­cials, such small steps and bland lan­guage sound al­most like a diplo­matic coup.

ANJUM NAVEED/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Chi­nese For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi, left, and Pak­istani for­eign ad­viser Sar­taj Aziz leave a June news con­fer­ence in Pak­istan.

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