Foreign Affairs
US-China Rivalry’s Impact on Pakistan: Strategic Challenges

Pakistan’s foreign policy is influenced by its strategic relationships with China and the U.S. Pakistan seeks to maintain ties with both countries to secure economic and strategic benefits, while also balancing its relationship with China. The evolving dynamics of Pakistan’s foreign policy are a key factor in its foreign policy.

China has become an important source of economic and military support for Pakistan, providing aid without the same level of conditionalities. Pakistan shares a border with China in the north and India in the east, and its strategic considerations are influenced by its geographic location. Pakistan often engages in a delicate balancing act between its relationships with China and the U.S. to secure economic and strategic benefits. The balance of power can shift, and Pakistan may adjust its foreign policy based on changing circumstances.

Pakistan can maintain a neutral stance and focus on non-alignment and sovereignty. It can enhance economic engagement by developing ties with China, the Middle East, Europe, and Central Asia, including participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and expanding trade relations with the US. Pakistan can diversify its international partnerships, strengthening ties with other Asian nations to reduce dependence on major powers. It can also play a proactive role in promoting peace and stability in South Asia, particularly with India, by facilitating dialogue and resolving long-standing conflicts. Balancing military relations is essential for national security.

Pakistan can support and participate in multilateral forums like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), providing opportunities for diplomacy, economic cooperation, and conflict resolution. Implementing domestic reforms to improve governance, economic stability, and infrastructure development can attract foreign investments and enhance Pakistan’s international standing.

Pakistan’s economic development, security dynamics, diplomatic manoeuvring, and regional alliances are significantly influenced by the US-China rivalry. The China-Pakistan alliance offers strategic advantages, economic benefits, and diplomatic support. As China’s global power rises, its support for Pakistan remains a crucial part of its South Asian foreign policy.

The Pakistan-China strategic partnership, rooted in historical ties and shared interests, has evolved into a multifaceted partnership spanning economics, security, and diplomacy. Balancing these global powers requires adept diplomacy and understanding of Pakistan’s interests in the ever-evolving global landscape. Pakistan must maintain strategic alliances and economic growth to navigate challenges and opportunities in an increasingly interconnected world.

The US is reshaping its strategic architecture in the Indo-Pacific Region-South Asia, focusing on strengthening the military capabilities of allies like India, Japan, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, the South Pacific Islands, and NATO. The US is also attempting to curb China’s economic growth by limiting its access to international markets, restricting trade, and countering its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).

The BRI is seen as a political and strategic initiative that could reshape the global order in China’s favour. The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) is an alternative to the BRI, aiming to foster economic development by connecting Asia, the Arabian Gulf, and Europe, potentially challenging China’s dominance. The geostrategic situation in the China-India-Pakistan sub-region is complex, with China improving its military capabilities to maintain strategic balance with the US-led West and its allies.

The US rivalry with China is essentially two-tiered: one aimed at maintaining America’s technological and military superiority and the other at ensuring a level playing field in economic competition. The US does not need to go to war to maintain its technological and military superiority by denying high technology, especially those that limit China’s capability for AI and military advancement. The Belt and Road Initiative and the IMEC reflect the changing geopolitical landscape of the 21st century, impacting political and economic relations between China and the U.S., particularly for Pakistan.

Pakistan has a long history of close ties with the US, particularly during the Cold War era. These relations have been influenced by geopolitics and issues related to US and global security. However, the bilateral relationship between Pakistan and the US has become bumpy, and a strong normality between the two countries is necessary for the region’s well-being. Geopolitics remains the guiding principle of Pakistan-US relations, but cooperation is still possible in areas like Afghanistan stabilization and counterterrorism. The US believes that continued Afghan conflict will keep insurgency and terrorism alive, which could threaten its security and fuel extremism in Pakistan.

The US-China rivalry is the most significant concern for Pakistan. While Pakistan’s strategic relationship with China is necessary, it is insufficient to address its economic and security challenges. The US, an important bilateral economic partner, has traditionally been a valuable security provider. Pakistan is relevant to Washington as a partner in regional security and a potential spoiler in geopolitical competition. If the economic equation becomes overly weighted in favour of China, the US-China competition may become a virtual “hand-to-hand fight.” Pakistan, especially if it is no longer needed by Washington and is seen as helping China undermine vital US economic or geopolitical interests, may be asked by the US or China to choose.

Pakistan faces economic and strategic challenges, necessitating a balance between its relations with the US and China. The country is concerned about America’s partnership with India, aiming for moderate engagement due to its dependence on defence and textile exports. This raises concerns for China, but the US-Pakistan partnership is mutually beneficial and minimally costs. Pakistan aims to avoid armed conflict with India, aligning with US interests. The US has often played a role in defusing tensions, while China has been a mediator in other regional conflicts.

The US’s involvement in the Russia-Ukrainian war and its interests in CAS and Afghanistan to counter Chinese influence has strained Pakistan’s relations. To maintain equilibrium, Pakistan can achieve political stability, economic prosperity, national cohesion, and good governance. This includes true, inclusive democratic dispensation through free, fair elections, strict adherence to the constitution, federalism, liberalism, and modernization in education and health systems. Non-political interventions should be avoided. The solution to a bad politician is fair and uninterrupted chances to replace them with good ones.

Pakistan is facing a severe economic crisis, with poverty reduction reversed, inflation at record highs, the rupee depreciating sharply, and foreign exchange reserves at low levels. To achieve prosperity, drastic structural reforms and reduction of corruption are needed. The nation is also grappling with increasing divisions based on religious, ethnic, sectarian, and social lines, leading to cracks in social infrastructure. A national dialogue for cohesion is urgently needed, involving all stakeholders through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. To maintain national interests and maintain relations with the US and China, state institutions and leaders must unite and address the root causes of these issues.

Geopolitical Chessboard: The Impact of US-China Rivalry on Pakistan

The US-China rivalry is a significant global geopolitical conflict, with Pakistan being deeply affected. Since its inception in 1947, Pakistan has maintained a complex relationship with both superpowers, including being a staunch ally during the Cold War. However, the Sino-Pakistani relationship has grown significantly in recent decades, marked by economic cooperation, military ties, and diplomatic support.

One of the most evident impacts of the US-China rivalry on Pakistan is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which connects the Gwadar Port in Pakistan to China’s northwestern region. This project offers significant economic opportunities for Pakistan, including infrastructure development, energy projects, and improved connectivity. However, it also places Pakistan in a delicate position as it balances its economic dependence on China with its historical ties to the United States.

The security dimension is equally critical, as Pakistan has long been a recipient of US military assistance and played a strategic role in the global war on terror. As China’s influence grows, so does its military partnership with Pakistan. The US’s evolving relationship with India, Pakistan’s regional rival, adds another layer of complexity to this triangular dynamic.

Pakistan’s diplomacy must navigate the delicate balance between the US and China, as both superpowers seek support for their respective policies. Balancing the economic benefits of CPEC with its long-term consequences is a central challenge for Pakistan’s policymakers.

The US-China rivalry places Pakistan in a geopolitical chess match, as the US seeks to strengthen its partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly with India. Pakistan may feel the need to further deepen its relationship with China, potentially impacting its regional alliances.

Why does China support Pakistan?

The China-Pakistan friendship has been a longstanding alliance, with both nations consistently supporting each other on various fronts. The relationship began in the early 1950s when both countries recognized each other diplomatically, and the common factor of India’s tense relations with both China and Pakistan catalyzed their burgeoning friendship. In 1962, Pakistan extended its support to China, which laid the foundation for a deepening of their relations.

China’s support for Pakistan can be attributed to its strategic interests in the South Asian region, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This relationship helps counterbalance India’s influence in South Asia, which is often viewed as a regional rival by both countries. By supporting Pakistan, China ensures that it has a reliable ally in the region to counterbalance India’s growing power.

Economic considerations also play a pivotal role in China’s support for Pakistan. The CPEC project represents a massive investment in Pakistan’s infrastructure, energy, and industrial sectors, benefiting both Pakistan and China by providing access to new markets and resources.

On the international stage, China and Pakistan have often found themselves on the same side of global issues, aligning their positions on issues like Kashmir, Tibet, and Taiwan. China is concerned about the presence of militant groups in the region, particularly in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Afghanistan, which pose a threat to China’s interests in the region, including its investments in the CPEC. China’s support for Pakistan also relates to nuclear proliferation, playing a significant role in Pakistan’s nuclear program in the 1980s and 1990s.

Pakistan-China Strategic Relationship: A Deepening Partnership

Pakistan and China have a long-standing alliance that has grown stronger over time, with economic collaboration being a central pillar. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), inaugurated in 2013, connects China’s western region to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port through highways, railways, and pipelines. CPEC facilitates trade between the two nations and serves as a gateway for China’s trade routes to the Middle East and Africa. It has ushered in billions of dollars in investments, fueling infrastructural development, energy projects, and job creation. However, it has raised concerns about debt sustainability and sovereignty, with some critics highlighting Pakistan’s growing dependence on China.

The strategic partnership between Pakistan and China is not limited to the economic sphere; they have also deepened their security and defence ties through joint military exercises and shared intelligence to combat terrorism and ensure regional stability. The sale of Chinese military hardware to Pakistan has further strengthened their security ties.

China’s diplomatic support to Pakistan on international issues, such as the Kashmir dispute with India, has elevated the significance of the Pakistan-China partnership in South Asia. The partnership serves as a counterbalance to the Indo-U.S. alliance in the region, shaping the strategic landscape of Asia and having implications for global power distribution.

Despite facing challenges like debt sustainability concerns, regional conflicts, and the evolving dynamics of great power politics, the future of the Pakistan-China strategic relationship appears promising. Both nations continue to reaffirm their commitment to deepening cooperation, and CPEC remains a flagship project for the region’s economic development.

Pakistan’s Balancing Act: Navigating Between U.S. and China

Pakistan faces a complex strategic dilemma between the United States and China, balancing its sovereignty, economic growth, and regional stability. The U.S. has criticized Pakistan for alleged support of militant groups, such as the Taliban, strained bilateral ties. However, Pakistan remains a vital partner for the U.S. in the war on terror and regional stability, particularly in Afghanistan.

In recent years, Pakistan’s relationship with China has deepened significantly through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China’s investment in Pakistan has led to substantial infrastructural development, which has the potential to boost Pakistan’s economy, alleviate poverty, and create job opportunities. However, this growing economic interdependence has sparked concerns among U.S. policymakers, who view China as a strategic rival in the Indo-Pacific region.

Pakistan seeks to secure its economic future through CPEC and strengthen its ties with China, while also avoiding alienating its longstanding ally, the United States. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2021 added another layer of complexity to Pakistan’s foreign policy, as it plays a pivotal role in the Afghan peace process and has to ensure stability in its neighbouring country. Balancing relations with the U.S. and China remains a challenging task for Pakistan’s leadership, requiring navigating complex diplomatic waters, avoiding antagonizing either superpower and safeguarding Pakistan’s sovereignty and national interests.

ChinaChina-US-PakistanForeign AffairsForeign policyGeopolitical Chessboard: The Impact of US-China Rivalry on PakistanPakistanPakistan-China Strategic Relationship: A Deepening PartnershipPakistan's Balancing Act: Navigating Between U.S. and ChinaUSUS ChinaUS-China Rivalry's Impact on Pakistan: Strategic ChallengesWhy does China support Pakistan?