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Thoughts On The Future Of Pakistan-U.S. Relations

On February 19, U.S. President Joe Biden participated virtually in a G-7 meeting and gave his first international speech at the 2021 Munich Security Conference. While Biden did not address the future of Pakistan-U.S. relations, his remarks have implications for those relations.

He proclaimed, “We’re at an inflection point between those who argue, given all the challenges we face…that autocracy is the best path forward, they argue, and those who understand that democracy is essential – essential to meeting those challenges.”

Biden went on to amplify, “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it. We have to prove that our model isn’t a relic of history; it’s the single best way to revitalize the promise of the future.”

The Biden administration will undoubtedly work to move Pakistan more in the democratic direction. The good news is that the Imran Khan administration has already made some progress in making Pakistan more democratic.

As Shahbaz Gill, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Political Communication, noted in a Twitter post in early February, Pakistan jumped three places to the 105th position on the 2020 Democracy Index recently released by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Another key focus of Biden’s remarks at the Munich Security Conference was to the threats posed by the autocratic nations of Russia and China. With regard to China, Biden declared, “…we must prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China. How the United States, Europe and Asia work together to secure the peace and defend our shared values and prosperity across the Pacific will be among the most consequential efforts. Competition with China is going to be stiff.”

Pakistan has a long-standing history of economic alignment and strategic investments with China. It is not going to break those ties. But, as Moeed Yusuf, National Security Advisor and Special Assistant to the Prime Minister indicated, Pakistan is open to modifying these ties. He held an in-depth conversation on U.S.-Pakistan Relations at the Wilson Center on January 21, the day after Biden was inaugurated.

In that conversation, Yusuf proposed the following, ‘The first thing we want to talk about is investment partnerships. This conversation about CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) is not always positive in Washington – how about an American reprocessing zone? How about American companies coming, investing money, reprocessing for export and sending wherever they want. How about doing things economically where there can be Pakistan-U.S., China co-investment?’

For a variety of reasons, including other priorities such as the multiple crises created by Covid-19, the Biden team has not yet set out the policy parameters for its relationship with Pakistan. Yusuf’s proposal will certainly be given due consideration when that is done. Two other proposals that will probably be reviewed are recommendations for a “new Pakistan policy” put forward through the Atlantic Council by Vali R. Nasir, Professor of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University and Shamila N. Chaudhary, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, and special report from Pakistan titled ‘Pak-Americana: Ushering in a New Era for the Pakistan-US Relations’ authored by Dr. Syed Mohammad Ali, Asad Rafi, and Mosharraf Zaidi.

The times are changing for both Pakistan and the U.S. and because of that, it is a propitious moment to forge a new relationship in which the U.S. invests more heavily in Pakistan and Pakistan builds new bridges with the U.S.

Among other things, Nasir and Chaudhary suggest:

 Pakistan’s trade agreement with China makes it an ideal re-exporting hub. The U.S. could build manufacturing facilities in Pakistan, add value to the products there, and sell them to the Chinese market as exports.

 The “best asset” each country has is its people. There should be a continued exchange through groups such as Pakistani Fulbright scholar recipients and promotion of U.S. business to Pakistani markets.

Ali, Rafi, and Zaidi also focus on trade, economic growth and people to people contacts as key drivers for a “new era”. Their other drivers include:

 Deepening and expanding the counterterrorism cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan to defeat global terrorism.

 Making climate change a priority because John Kerry, President Biden’s Special Envoy, understands Pakistan and Prime Minister Khan has a strong record on climate change.

In their paper, the authors of the “new era” importantly and pragmatically state: “Pakistan should not, in principle, object to the growing strategic convergence between India and the United States. But it must persuade the US of not allowing its newfound convergences with New Delhi to compromise Pakistan’s national security.”

There is no new relationship yet between the U.S. and Pakistan. But a new day has dawned. That day provides considerable hope for a new beginning for Pakistan and the U.S.

They hope that diplomatic, economic and military ties will be looked at from a fresh perspective and once again the ties become more institutionally-centered and expert-driven.

This approach is totally opposite of former president Donald Trump’s routine policymaking approach which tended to be highly personal and transactional. As I discussed in an earlier article, Trump was quite willing to ignore input and advice from the U.S. Department of State, which has the world’s largest collection of foreign policy experts.

By contrast, President Biden comes into his leadership role with probably a deeper understanding of Pakistan, than any previous U.S. President. Because of this and the experts around him, the Biden administration brings the promise of interacting productively with their counterparts in Prime Minister Khan’s administration. They can develop new avenues for Pakistan-U.S. partnership and work collaboratively to craft mutually acceptable solutions in problematic areas.


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