By S. Nihal Singh
Oct 12, 2011
Behind the new strains in Pakistan’s relations with the United States and its efforts to find solace in China lies the stark fact that shortly after Partition and the formation of two independent states, Islamabad decided to become a client state as a hedge against India and to carve out greater space for itself. That policy has remained a constant despite the twists and turns in international affairs, during the Cold War and after its end.
When India chose the path of non-alignment, Pakistan enthusiastically opted for Washington and became a treaty partner in its anti-communist alliances. Later, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the offensive mounted by the US through Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Islamabad became a conduit in the war. But long before this new joint enterprise, Pakistan decided to cosy up to China, which had inflicted a humiliating defeat on India in the 1962 border war and had its own reasons for containing India.
Pakistan benefited much from this twin relationship, receiving much military and other assistance from Washington and help in nuclear weapons from Beijing. The Pakistani leadership, while hailing China as an “all weather friend”, has had problems in balancing the need for dollars with the traditional anti-Americanism that has been the staple of the country’s political discourse.
There has been less inclination in Pakistan’s leadership ranks to publicly count the costs of the original post-Partition leaders’ decision to become a client state of one or more powers. Yet these have been heavy, sometimes outweighing the benefits of receiving war toys and a bountiful flow of other assistance. The American decision to disengage from Afghanistan left Pakistan awash in Kalashnikovs, drugs and an assortment of battle-hardened guerrilla fighters at a loose end. The frequency of bombings and assassinations in Pakistan is one consequence; the other has been the decision of the spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, to use the last as an asset in the proxy war in Afghanistan and against India.
The intensity of Pakistan’s relations with China is more opaque, but Beijing has invested heavily in building up Islamabad as its own proxy against India. At the same time, as Pakistani leaders are discovering in their anxiety to embrace Beijing in a tighter embrace, the Chinese leadership has its own priorities and will not be reckless in writing a blank cheque for Islamabad to support the latter’s anti-India policies.
The blunt talk by the retiring chairman of the US Joint Chief of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, about Pakistan’s ISI being in bed with the Haqqani faction to serve Islamabad’s interests in Afghanistan and India hurt Pakistani self-esteem so much because it spelled out publicly what the US establishment has been telling Islamabad privately. It was, in a sense, an expression of Washington’s frustration after finding and killing Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, a stone’s throw from the country’s primary military academy, confirming American suspicions that he was being protected by elements in Pakistan’s military establishment.
Despite the expected ripostes from Pakistani establishment figures, the country has become aware more acutely than ever before that some costs of being a client state must be paid. In other words, there are limits to a client state’s ability to manoeuvre its benefactors to its own advantage.
The US establishment knows that it is boxed in Afghanistan and, given Pakistan’s geopolitical assets, must humour it up to a point. That point was reached when elements in the ISI and Pakistani military directly attacked the US embassy and NATO assets in Kabul through the Haqqani faction.
Similarly, China, while fully supporting Pakistan in weakening India, has its wider interests to look after. Given the burgeoning trade ties between China and India and the complicated relationships Beijing has in South-east Asia, particularly in relation to the contested South China Sea, and the all-important Beijing-Washington equation, India-bashing as a constant policy does not make sense for China.
In a sense, therefore, the Mullen discourse is Pakistan’s moment of truth. There is little indication that Pakistan can or will move away from its 60-odd years’ policy of being a client state. Yet the amour-propre of Pakistanis is deeply hurt by Admiral Mullen’s blunt lecture. It is, of course, humiliating in being reminded so publicly of the limits of Pakistani sovereignty, given the flow of arms and dollars into the country.
It is a somewhat different story in China’s case. Beijing has never given budgetary support to Pakistan, but has helped immensely in infrastructure projects although the risks to Chinese workers in troubled areas like Baluchistan are a restricting factor. And Beijing has been a benefactor in making Pakistan a nuclear-armed state. In short, China can never replace the US in funding Pakistan’s budget deficits, and despite anti-American fulminations, Islamabad is well aware of this harsh truth.
Could Pakistan have chosen a different path, given the tortured history of Partition? Perhaps the biggest philosophical mistake made by the country’s independence generation leaders was to aspire to be India’s equal in all respects. In realistic terms, it was an impossible proposition, in view of the disparities in the population, area, economic and military development and expertise between the two countries. This philosophical folklore, which has been accepted by succeeding generations, inevitably leads to defining Pakistan’s status as a client state. If Pakistan is to be India’s equal in every way, it can attempt to do so only through aligning with one or several outside powers.
There are no easy answers to Pakistan’s predicament. For a time, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto tried to square the circle by positioning his country as a West Asian, rather than South Asian, power, a geopolitical impossibility. Pakistan has succeeded in playing the Islamic card against India on occasion and has secured valuable support from Saudi Arabia whose embrace of Islamabad has also made governance in the latter country more difficult by increasing Salafist tendencies and creating inter-sect tensions.
The next chapter in Pakistan’s search for identity is likely to be written after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Source: Asian Age, New Delhi