With the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia the world has moved into a new era of great power competition. China is the primary rival to the US supremacy and in Asia the two superpowers are contenders for hegemony in the same geographical space. On one hand, the US is vying to maintain its decades-old supremacy in the region while on the other hand, China has scrambled to build partnerships and project its influence by using the huge resources at its disposal.
The strategic competition between the two giants and the attempts to revitalize old alliances as well as forming new balancing coalitions has placed the middle powers of the Asia-Pacific in a tight spot to choose between either of the two superpowers. Pakistan, since its inception, has been a crucial middle power in the Asia-Pacific thanks to its vital geostrategic positioning. Today, Pakistan’s geostrategic significance has increased manifold, which has not only opened scores of new avenues for the country but also has added to the typical middle powers’ dilemma as to which side of the equation it may feature to safeguard its interests.
In this interview Mr Hamayoun Khan, programme advisor for regional peace and security at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Pakistan Office and former lecturer at the National Defence University of Pakistan, analyses Pakistan’s role in the geopolitical order in Asia.
The world order is in transition and tensions between the great powers are rising. How will the Russia-Ukraine crisis impact Pakistan?
Pakistan’s limited participation in global supply chains does offer it some protection from the economic repercussions of the war in Ukraine. Nevertheless, in the short term, the Russian invasion of Ukraine will put Pakistan under increased economic pressure. There are two vital commodities exported by Ukraine and Russia, and inauspiciously Pakistan happens to be an importer of both: wheat and petroleum products. While Ukraine’s wheat exports are likely to take a hit, so will Russia’s. The latter’s status as a prime exporter of oil and now being slapped with Western sanctions has sent the global markets, especially oil markets, into an utter frenzy. The supply shortage of these two commodities has constrained their global supply, resulting in increased prices. The immediate result of this supply chain shock is the sudden increase in the import bill for Pakistan as evident from recent trade statistics. Though currently the impact of wheat shortage and price hike is not being felt, it is likely to make its impact manifested in the next few– a situation that the embattled coalition government in Pakistan would find extremely difficult to cope with.
Additionally, the tough sanctions on Russia endanger the planned construction of the 2.5 billion USD Pakistan Stream Pipeline, which would connect Pakistan’s Punjab province with LNG terminals in the port city of Karachi and is vital for keeping up the infrastructure with the country’s growing energy consumption. The project is to be built in collaboration with Russian companies with the Government of Pakistan providing 74% while Russia providing 26% of financing. Pakistan hoped to establish close energy cooperation with Russia through the Pakistan Stream Pipeline, originally named “North-South gas pipeline”, and other future projects. It is uncertain at this point, if and how this will move forward in the near future.
How will the growing geopolitical tension between the US and China play out in South Asia and what does it mean for Pakistan?
The main area of the US foreign policy’s interest is the Asia-Pacific or, the geographical space that the US increasingly term as the Indo-Pacific. And even though Chinese President Xi Jinping said in 2012, that the Pacific Ocean has ample space for China and the United States, the area appears more and more contested. In the long run, Pakistan will be heavily affected by the US’s attempts to decouple its economy from China. This is especially true for Pakistan’s dependency on high-tech products. Like other countries, the two tech giants will demand to choose between either of the two tech world orders when it comes to hardware and software products. It will become economically unviable to keep up with two competing tech orders at the same time.
The intensifying strategic competition between the USA and China in connection with the ongoing decoupling of its economies will lead to increased polarization which will make it almost impossible for a country to live in two competing world orders simultaneously. In my view, the strategic decision should be based on a country’s presence in the respective tech order since this will be decisive for future economic development. Even though currently, Pakistan is part of the US-led tech order is becoming more and more embedded into the Chinese-led tech order. At the core of these developments lies the China-Pakistan cooperation under China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), but also the growing US and India tech convergence, especially in the military IT realm, which constitutes an existential threat for Pakistan.
It is difficult to provide an exact timeline on Pakistan’s shift from US-led to Chinese-led tech order, given China itself has not completely decoupled from the US-led order yet, but there are visible early signs that the process has already started and so are the signs of Pakistan’s steady integration into the Chinese-led order. Pakistan lies at the crossroads of China’s Digital Silk Road (DSR) and acts as a gateway for PEACE (Pakistan East Africa Connecting Europe), an internet cable out of China into the Arabian Sea. The laying and operationalization of the momentous optic fiber cable are likely to introduce an information revolution in Pakistan. First, it has already and will continue to massively enhance connectivity within Pakistan. Far-flung areas of Gilgit-Baltistan have already received super-fast internet connections. Secondly, apart from existing connectivity with global internet owned by the USA, Pakistan has got alternate internet connectivity through a Chinese network. Additionally, Pakistan is planning to build a number of IT parks with Chinese cooperation and will become an important host country for the 5G internet provided by the Chinese tech giant Huawei through the PEACE cable. Concurrently, Pakistan is the only country using the Chinese alternative to GPS BeiDou for military purposes while cooperation in the military application of new-age information technology is already on the rise.
Will the new geopolitical order in Asia lead to more security challenges for Pakistan?
History has shown that great power rivalry leads to an increase in proxy wars. This could very well be an outcome of the US-China rivalry. In South Asia, Pakistan hosts the Belt-and-Road Initiative’s flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC is a 62 billion USD infrastructure project that connects China with Pakistan’s access to the Arabian Sea. Traditionally, Pakistan has been an ally of the United States during the Cold War and the War on Terror. But due to the war in Afghanistan and its adverse impact on Pakistan, the ties between Pakistan and the US have been loosened over the last years. At the same time, the United States became a closer ally of India while India’s relations with China deteriorated over disputed borders in the Himalayas. Overall, South Asia is a fragile region with a precarious peace that could lead to proxy wars of the rivalry of the great powers in the future.
Under the last government of Imran Khan, Pakistan has been pushing to avoid bloc politics. This is a cornerstone of Pakistan’s national security strategy considering the justified fears that Pakistan may be caught in the crossfire of the great powers. But there does not seem to be a concrete plan on how to ensure avoiding bloc politics. Before his ouster, Imran Khan took a more aggressive stance towards the West, damaging the relationship with the US and the EU – Pakistan’s most important trading partners. The security establishment wants to re-enter its romance with the USA. But the global trends and the US’s regional posture favouring India eventually will make it inevitable for Pakistan to either seek an even closer partnership with China or accept a role secondary to its arch-rival within the US Indo-Pacific strategy – which is almost a non-starter for the leadership in the politically influential security establishment.
What role in shaping the new geopolitical and geo-economic order can middle powers such as Pakistan play?
The international arena is a callous sphere. Here great powers make rules, middle powers, like Pakistan, follow and help implement those rules while the smaller powers have to instinctively follow the rules. Middle powers have limited space – constrained by geographic and geo-economic factors – and are pressured to choose between the competing great powers, once they have made the fundamental choice, the only role they are expected to play is subservient to great powers. This is exactly the direction Pakistan is moving toward as the country integrates more deeply into the Chinese-led geo-economic and geopolitical order. It is a sad truth in international relations that sovereignty and agency are the first casualties once you become a member of a geopolitical bloc.