As President Trump learns the ropes, Pakistan must maintain constant vigilance
On January 20th, President-elect Trump took oath and become President Trump. Although it is hard to predict the policy approach of the new president, his rhetoric and cabinet pick shed some light on the possible future. In my view, January 20th was the launch of a cold war between USA and China. In this piece, I will try to justify this.
First, the rhetoric.
Mr. Trump has sent signals of entente towards Russia while raising tensions with China. He has suggested that he is willing to reconsider sanctions on Russia; accept the annexation of Crimea; accept Russian strategic interest in her region, and possible collaboration to fight extremists and terrorists – especially the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But when it comes to China, Mr. Trump has questioned the one-China policy in relations to Taiwan; blamed China for dumping products to destroy American industry; and refused to accept Chinese claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea. His Secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson, even upped the ante by suggesting that force could be used to deny the Chinese access to artificial islands built in South China sea. The nominated Secretary of Defense, retired General James Matis, has suggested that America has to increase investments in its defense capabilities as well as permanently place aircraft carriers in South Asia. In other words, Mr. Trump and his cabinet are proposing the creation of a wedge between Russia and China, thereby focusing solely on China as a major threat to American interests in Asia, Africa, and South America. This means a continuation of President Obama’s Asian pivot, but with a little more aggression.
The new cold war between USA and China will have all the necessary dimensions including those related to culture, ideology, economics and security. The aim of this war is to contain the rising influence of China by creating uncertainty close to its borders. This kind of uncertainty is detrimental to economy and also increases economic burden because of the resulting expansion of the defense budget as well as the creation of stress on the social order. The Chinese economy is currently going through a transition from an export-driven one to a consumer-driven one. It is experiencing declining exports, rising labour costs and increasing debts. Any stress resulting from a security challenge could be costly during this transition. And Taiwan will not be the only front opened – another will be Hong Kong, which could be used to develop pro-democracy sentiments that are the anathema to a communist political structure, and then seek its penetration to the mainland. Separatist sentiments in Tibet and Xinjiang could also get a boost – with help from India. This struggle will be challenging for the Chinese, but if they are able to overcome it, they will be an unchallenged global power for the rest of the century.
In Europe, Mr. Trump has also suggested that NATO is obsolete and has to change or be disbanded. This is also in line with President Obama’s policy where he has been demanding an increase in defense spending by 2% of GDP from European partners. I have written in the past that President Obama wanted Europe to deal with Russia itself while the USA focuses on the Asian pivot. Thus, Mr. Trump’s position is not a departure from the existing policy line, but is, rather, speeding up the process. In my view, USA would demand from the EU a leadership role in NATO while it creates a new security platform in Asia to deal with rising China.
During the US Presidential elections, Russia and China both realised that there is a window of opportunity for them to entrench their interests before the new President gets a hold of his office. Russia initiated two peace dialogues to deal with Syria and Afghanistan. In Syria, it initiated a truce-deal in collaboration with Turkey and Iran. In Afghanistan, it initiated a process with China and Pakistan, which will soon be expanded to include Iran and Afghanistan. Russia has invited the US to join both these initiatives – but it will not be without preconditions. Russia could demand the acceptance of its (genuine) security concerns in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and South Asia. It could demand that the expansion of NATO and the EU be frozen, as well as the removal of NATO forces from states that were once part of the now defunct USSR. It will, of course, demand that all sanctions be lifted and a permanent dialogue process initiated with USA, EU, and NATO.
China has also taken advantage of the American political transition by building military structures on South China islands, finalisinge CPEC with Pakistan, and launching the Asia Infrastructure and Development Bank (AIIB). Mr. Trump has created some cards – Taiwan and the South China Sea – to strengthen his hand in negotiating with China. The next strategic dialogue with China will look more like a past dialogue – one between USA and Russia during the cold war. The agenda for these dialogues could be trade, a level playing field; sovereignty over islands in South China sea; allow the US to have more military bases in South East Asia; a cap on defense spending and military capabilities; climate change; and joint management of the Middle East – including Pakistan and Afghanistan.
What can Pakistan do? Pakistan must depart from its zero-sum foreign policy. It should define the overlapping and divergent interests with the three major powers (Russia, China and USA). It should convey the importance of securing Pakistan’s strategic interests in Afghanistan, and ensure that there remains a balance of power with India. Pakistan should take the lead in the formation of a security platform to deal with extremism and terrorism (proposed by Saudi Arabia) but ensure that it does not have sectarian connotations. This could be achieved by developing the head office for it in a non-Saudi city as well as appointment of a globally recognised diplomat along with a security head. It should seek support for it from the three international powers. Pakistan should also try to revive the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) with Turkey and Iran which should be ultimately linked with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). It is not an impossible task as both Iran and Turkey have deepened their economic collaboration. India is a big economy and major military power. We should seek a position of neutrality with them rather than engage in hostile relations. But we must not compromise on our policy positions related to Kashmir, nuclear weapons, access to civilian nuclear power, and regional economic integration.
Pakistan has to be pragmatic and wise in its foreign policy which is only possible when all voices are consulted – including opposition parties, former ambassadors, former foreign ministers, think tank scholars and policy experts. Our other challenge will be reforming domestic politics, which has resulted in the absence of intellectual depth, a lack of capability, low capacity, and a genuine mandate of the people.