A key plank of U.S. President Donald Trump’s new strategy to turn around the 16-year conflict in Afghanistan will probably falter for a reason few of his voters would realize: China. On Monday, Trump outlined an open-ended commitment to the conflict in Afghanistan that pledged more troops and diplomatic outreach to the Taliban. Importantly, Trump publicly tried to pressure Pakistan to end safe havens for terrorists who are striking at Afghanistan. A day later, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson followed up Trump’s comments, adding that Pakistan “must adopt a different approach.” But this aspect of the Afghan strategy is likely to founder because of China’s increasingly close economic ties with Pakistan, which reduces American leverage.
With more than $50 billion in planned infrastructure projects and strong diplomatic support for its positions, American threats to withdraw billions in military aid are becoming less worrying for the powerful army, which dominates foreign policy. With China’s role increasing, Pakistan’s forces have fewer incentives to stop covertly supporting insurgent groups that strike inside Afghanistan and arch-rival India, while targeting outfits that threaten its own domestic security. “China is the shield now behind which Pakistan can be expected to continue to play its double game,” said Harsh Pant, an international relations professor at King’s College London. “The more aid America will cut, Pakistan will be expecting China to fill the vacuum.”
Pakistan has long denied it harbors terrorists. But despite rising frustration from U.S. lawmakers over designated terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network — who strike Afghanistan allegedly from inside Pakistan — China’s support for its ally means Pakistan doesn’t need to alter course. In the last four fiscal years, China has directly invested $2.8 billion in Pakistan compared with the $533 million inflows from the U.S., according to Pakistan’s central bank. Chinese banks have also helped Pakistan plug its widening deficits. Pakistan received $848 million in loans from China in the six months through December 2016 to finance the country’s “growing current account gap,” according to the central bank.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry released a defiant statement after Trump’s speech saying China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi “lauded Pakistan’s contributions and great sacrifices made in the fight against terrorism” and the “international community should fully recognize these efforts.” Later that evening, the foreign ministry released another statement calling Trump’s comments part of a “false narrative.” It also said Trump’s strategy will likely fail as U.S. military action hasn’t brought peace to Afghanistan in 16 years and probably won’t “in the future.” “China is at the moment supporting and helping Pakistan’s economic development and neutralizing part of the American argument” pressuring Islamabad, said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst based in Lahore.
Amounts paid out to Pakistan under a U.S. coalition support fund have fallen 62 percent from $1.44 billion in 2013, with hundreds of millions blocked in the past year as American officials said Pakistan wasn’t doing enough to root out groups like the Haqqanis. Threats to withdraw U.S. military aid entirely aren’t going to have much impact, since the U.S. needs Pakistan for its broader efforts in South Asia, Rizvi said. Even if Washington chooses to get tough on Islamabad, “Pakistan can survive even without any American assistance.” On Wednesday, Pakistan’s army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, told U.S. Ambassador David Hale the military isn’t looking for funding, but wants recognition of its contribution in the fight against terrorism. At the same time, Pakistan’s government stressed it doesn’t want to alienate the U.S.
We won’t “turn our back on the rest of the world on the back of Chinese support,” said Miftah Ismail, an economic adviser to Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. “We want to be friends with every country and America has a role to play.” Some hope China might use its clout to end regional instability. In an interview this month, Omar Zakhilwal, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, said he hopes Beijing will use its influence to push for a permanent peace deal. “China could only be genuinely interested in peace in Afghanistan for its investments in Pakistan,” Zakhilwal said. “Instability in any of these countries does not serve China’s interest.”
And China has huge interests in Pakistan. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects form the cornerstone of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s so-called ‘One Belt, One Road’ Initiative. And the Chinese funded port of Gwadar gives Beijing a deep sea port in the Arabian Sea, close to mutual rival India — with whom China is currently engaged in a Himalayan border dispute. There are also about 20,000 Chinese workers in Pakistan, double the number two years ago, and Pakistan’s military is firmly behind CPEC, said one senior Chinese official, who asked not to be named as they aren’t authorized to speak to the media.
“Pakistan’s pivot towards China, particularly under the CPEC initiative, has been clear for some time,” said Bilal Khan, a senior economist at Standard Chartered Plc in Karachi. “It remains unclear what the future U.S.-Pakistan economic relationship could look like.” After being spurned by Trump’s criticism, Pakistan is even less likely to agree to a U.S.-directed policy, even if it is accompanied by threats. “It’s nothing new for U.S. leaders to vow to get Pakistan to change its ways,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center. “What remains to be seen is how Trump intends to compel Pakistan to alter its behavior. In all likelihood, Pakistan is unlikely to change its ways regardless of what threat or punishment Trump comes out with.”