How China can help Pakistan weather Trump’s tweet storm

China has invested billions in Pakistan, making it less responsive, perhaps, to Trump's complaints about its cooperation on terrorism. Still, say experts, Pakistan would prefer to preserve its ties with the US, and remains key to a solution on Afghanistan.

B.K. Bangash/AP
At a news stand in Islamabad, Pakistan, Jan. 2, 2018, a local paper carried news about a tweet by President Donald Trump. Mr. Trump slammed Pakistan for 'lies & deceit' in a New Year's Day tweet that said Islamabad had played US leaders for 'fools.'

American frustrations with Pakistan have run high for decades. So perhaps the newest thing about President Trump’s New Year’s Day blast against the South Asian problem partner was how it was delivered – in a tweet.

“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years” in exchange for “nothing but lies & deceit” and giving “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan,” the president fumed. “No more!”

On Tuesday the US announced it was withholding $255 million in planned military financing for Pakistan.

There was also little new in the Pakistani government’s reaction to Mr. Trump’s three-line diatribe: an emergency national security cabinet meeting, a summoning of the US ambassador to Islamabad to the offices of the foreign minister, and a pledge to offer within days a “facts not fiction” defense of Pakistan’s counterterrorism policies and record.

What is new in the context of this latest crisis in US-Pakistan relations is the large and expanding role that China is playing in a country that for decades kept almost all of its eggs in the American basket.

Now with a rising China providing regional support and far more in investment and aid dollars than the United States, Pakistan is no longer feeling so firmly tethered to the US as it deepens relations with Beijing. The result is that Pakistan is quaking a little less at Washington’s latest broadside – and may be less inclined to scramble to make amends with Trump, some regional experts say.

“This is not the Pakistan of the past,” says Marvin Weinbaum, a former Pakistan and Afghanistan analyst at the State Department who is now director for Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“China has provided something like $57 billion in investment in Pakistan’s infrastructure, in energy and agriculture and industry, the links between the two are stronger all the time,” Dr. Weinbaum says. “Now when Washington threatens, [the Pakistanis] don’t feel the pressure and so isolated the way they used to.”

Pakistan fires back

Indeed, as if to underscore the self-assurance the country is feeling as a result in part of having a new and swaggering best friend, Pakistani officials were quick to counter Trump’s threats with their own bravado – and to spotlight advancing ties with Beijing.

“We have already told the US that we will not do more, so Trump’s ‘no more’ does not hold any importance,” Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif said in a television interview. He added that the president’s disappointment “at the US defeat in Afghanistan … is the only reason he is flinging accusations at Pakistan.”

Defense Minister Khurram Dastagir told the BBC Urdu service that the US can no longer “dictate terms” to Pakistan through the threat of withholding aid.

Pakistan’s central bank also chose the moment to announce Tuesday that the country would now accept China’s yuan as a currency for bilateral trade – a role the US dollar has largely played until now. The move is seen as further easing the path forward for China’s “One Belt, One Road” global trade infrastructure initiative announced in 2015.

And China was quick to come to Pakistan’s defense in the wake of Trump’s tweet.

“Pakistan has made great efforts and sacrifices for combating terrorism and made prominent contributions to the cause of international terrorism, and the international community should fully recognize this,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said Tuesday.

As if to underscore China’s defense of a friend under attack, the spokesman added, “China stands ready to further deepen cooperation with Pakistan in various fields to bring greater benefits to the two peoples.”

The friendly and supportive tone was everything Trump’s tweet was not – a contrast China was happy to emphasize, analysts say.

The Afghanistan conundrum

Still, aside from the public nature of Trump’s expression of frustration with Pakistan, there was little new about the point-counterpoint between Washington and Islamabad, experts in the relationship say.

“The reason for the administration’s debate over Pakistan is that the same old conundrum still exists,” says Laurel Miller, who was the State Department’s acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan until June. “On the one hand the US is frustrated by Pakistan’s continued harboring of the leadership of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network,” two insurgent groups that cross over to fight in Afghanistan. “On the other hand, there simply are no solutions to the problems in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s cooperation.”

And Pakistan’s response to Trump’s attack was just as predictable, says Ms. Miller, now a foreign policy expert at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. “Pakistan’s reaction was not at all surprising. When they feel publicly cornered, their inclination is to bite back and dig in,” she says.

Indeed, Miller says Pakistan’s key motivations have not varied in recent years. The government (both the civilian leadership and the powerful military) is “motivated by their own view of their national security interests” and their lack of confidence in a US military victory in Afghanistan, she says.

At the same time, the government is ever mindful of a need to not appear weak in the eyes of the public. “They are also motivated by the absolute necessity not to appear to be bending to the pressure of the American thumb,” she says.

The Middle East Institute’s Weinbaum, who visited Pakistan last year, says he noticed a new sense of independence from Washington that stretches from ministry offices to average citizens.

“They don’t feel their relationship with the US is critical to them any more, and that goes right down to the guy in the street,” he says. “The attitude is that if we can’t get weapons from the US, we can somewhere else, maybe Russia. And there’s this expanding confidence – I think probably over-confidence – about what the Chinese can do for them.”

Weinbaum notes, for example, that China’s assistance to Pakistan has largely been in the form of loans. “They’re going to be deeply indebted to China,” he says.

US-India ties

Others sense that Pakistan is keenly aware of a risk of becoming too beholden to its powerful neighbor. But that caution is being outweighed by concerns that the US is deepening its relations with arch-rival India, they add.

“Deepening relations with China are giving the Pakistanis some confidence they are not going to be too isolated in the international community – they’ll take China as a financial backer and as a permanent member of the [United Nations] Security Council,” RAND’s Miller says. “But my sense is that the Pakistanis would prefer not to have to rely to heavily on Beijing, they’d prefer a more diversified set of partners that would continue to include the US.”

In particular, she says, the Pakistani military would prefer to maintain its “deep and valued” relationship with the Pentagon.

In the long run, what seems most likely to drive Pakistan deeper into China’s arms is the US’s strengthening strategic relationship with India, particularly under Trump, Miller says.

“In the past, the US didn’t look at its relations with India and Pakistan as a zero-sum game, but as two distinct relationships, each with its own merits,” Miller says. “But more recently the US has been seen as trying to play the India card with Pakistan – suggesting there is now more of a zero-sum approach.”

Miller worries that in the short term the US will take more punitive action against Pakistan that could prompt Pakistan to respond with acts of its own – closing US military supply lines into Afghanistan, for example, as it did during a previous crisis in 2011 – prompting a further “downward spiral” in relations.

Such a deterioration, especially at the same time the US is building relations with India, would likely only encourage Pakistan to deepen ties to China.

“What we’re seeing is an emerging US-and-India vs. Pakistan-and-China dynamic in the region that won’t be good for anyone,” Miller says, “but which on the contrary will be detrimental to the interests of all four countries.”

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