In 2015, the major foreign policy challenge Pakistan is beset with is how to halt the downward spiral of its regional importance. Pakistan feels it has been demeaned by the second visit of US President Barack Obama to India in January this year. This time there was more festivity than in 2010, too soon after the Mumbai attacks of 2008. Obama was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day. During the visit, Obama elicited all types of signals to accentuate India’s regional-cum-international importance, though some critics comment that the symbolism aspect of the visit was more prominent than anything substantial agreed to on the ground.
Pakistan seems to have issued a knee jerk reaction by planning to celebrate its Republic Day (or Pakistan Day) with the attendance of Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 23. One can argue that the visit of the Chinese president was already planned, as the visit had been postponed in August 2014. However, to arrange a military parade (which has not taken place since 2008 owing to security reasons) and expect Jinping to be the chief guest on the Republic Day’s (military) parade reeks of a (India-specific) gesture in reaction. By so doing, Pakistan must be planning to create a counter-narrative of symbolism followed by an announcement of the Pak-China Economic Corridor (PCEC) from the Gwadar port — as a Chinese hinterland — to Xinjiang, northwestern China.
Even if the point is just to symbolise an occasion with a show of association with the second biggest economy of the world, Pakistan is taking a big risk on three counts. First, Pakistan may be accelerating a war of attrition with India without realising that Pakistan’s economy is smaller than India’s and that Pakistan is under huge financial debt. Second, Pakistan may be irking the US by trying to fill the void with the US’s competitor, China. Third, Pakistan may put China in an awkward position vis-à-vis India and the US, regionally and internationally.
Pakistanis do revel in Chinese friendship but is it necessary to test and keep on testing the contours of that friendship? It seems Pakistan is now overplaying under the spell of wariness. Pakistan’s gesture is short of a mature country that ruminates much before taking a step. Certainly, the inauguration of the economic corridor has to be done by the Chinese president but the attempt to create a sense of counter-symbolism should be avoided. The point is simple: if Obama makes another visit to India this year, will Pakistan also arrange another visit of the Chinese president to Pakistan?
India is not in a mood to affront China. Sensing urgency to allay the fears of China towards the India-US strategic (and defence) cooperation regionally — an allusion to the China containment possibility — India’s external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, visited China immediately after Obama’s visit to India. Ms Swaraj was not only given unprecedented immediate access to the Chinese president, she was also given an affirmative nod for the visit of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China in May this year. Reportedly, Modi will reciprocate the visit of Jinping to the former’s home town Ahmedabad in the province of Gujarat, India, in September 2014 by visiting the latter’s home town, Xi’an, in the province of Shaanxi, China. In the context of India-China relations, this sense of bonhomie has never been witnessed before.
Pakistan is also failing to realise that the geniality between India and the US is growing whereas there have appeared tensions between Pakistan and the US. It is not important whether or not India and the US are getting closer at the cost of Pakistan; it is important, however, to ponder over the point that Pakistan has lost its regional value. It was March 2009 when Pakistan was publicly told by Obama that Pakistan would be hyphenated with Afghanistan and not with India, under the Af-Pak strategy. Pakistan failed to contest this new relationship and, since then, Pakistan has failed to de-hyphenate itself from Afghanistan. No doubt, in some ways, China may help Pakistan claim parity with India regionally, but China cannot help Pakistan get de-hyphenated from Afghanistan.
Pakistani policymakers might have studied India and the US a lot but it seems that they have not studied China a great deal. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the US economy was about $ 18 trillion in 2014 and a significant share came from producing innovative technology. The GDP of the Chinese economy was about $ 10 trillion in 2014 but a substantial share came from non-innovative technology. Secondly, it seems that Pakistan has not yet come out of the Cold War mentality. As symptoms indicate, Pakistan still thinks that bloc politics, even at the regional level, are possible whereas China has changed itself. China is trying to extend healthy and positive economic relations not only with India and the US but also with Russia.
Thirdly, Pakistan does not realise the fact that the common concern of all three countries — India, China and the US — is terrorism connected to religion in Pakistan. They all throw the same one point agenda at Pakistan to fulfill. Fourth, both China and the US have pledged to invest in India, though China is also planning to invest in Pakistan in certain areas ranging from energy to infrastructure. Fifth, all three countries want to engage in trade with one another, besides the countries of their respective regions. China is promoting India to take part not only in regional economic corridors such as the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor, famous for the Maritime Silk Road (MSR), but also in regional economic blocs such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). In this way, Indian goods will not only bypass Pakistan through Iran, they will also bypass Pakistan through China to reach Central Asian markets. Briefly, Pakistan should do some introspection to circumvent being discredited and secluded regionally.
The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at email@example.com