ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The words from Pakistan’s top foreign policy adviser could not have been clearer. At a news conference welcoming China’s foreign minister to the Pakistani capital this week, Sartaj Aziz declared, “Pakistan’s relations with China are the cornerstone of our foreign policy.
It was a blunt signal of change by a country that has long been a key ally and aid recipient of the United States, from the nations’ Cold War alliance against Soviet meddling in Afghanistan to a more recent, uneasy partnership in the fight against Islamist terrorism in the region. Today, Pakistan continues to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. annual support.
But Islamabad’s political pivot from Washington to Beijing, already its dominant investor and increasingly important global interlocutor, is hardly surprising, experts said.
Pakistani officials have been worried for months that the Trump administration will put heavy pressure on their government, possibly by cutting aid or even declaring it a “state sponsor of terrorism” — a giant black mark — because of complaints by Afghan authorities, U.S. military officials and members of Congress that Pakistan continues to harbor anti-Afghan insurgents.
At the same time, Islamabad has been concerned about Washington’s emerging friendship with India, Pakistan’s much larger, nuclear-armed rival and neighbor. This week’s upbeat state visit to Washington by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was received enthusiastically by President Trump, raised new alarm bells here.
On Thursday, Pakistani newspapers featured a photo of Trump and Modi hugging goodbye accompanied by anxious headlines and a testy statement from Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry that called a joint statement by the two leaders “singularly unhelpful” in achieving stability in South Asia and said it “aggravates an already tense situation.” The ministry also said China had endorsed Pakistan’s view.
Pakistan was especially upset that Modi and Trump spoke about the importance of reining in regional terrorism — referring indirectly to Pakistan’s alleged support of anti-Afghan insurgents — but ignored Pakistan’s denunciations of human rights abuses by Indian forces against protesters in the contested border region of Kashmir, as well as its charges of Indian support for anti-Pakistan militants.
“Those who seek to appropriate a leadership role in the fight against terror are themselves responsible for much of the terror unleashed in Pakistan,” the Foreign Ministry said, referring to India. Pakistani commentators suggested that Washington, in turn, was trying to please India by suddenly placing Syed Salahuddin, the longtime Pakistan-based leader of a Kashmiri Muslim rebel group, on a list of global terrorists. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said the United States had begun “speaking India’s language.”
Pakistani officials and commentators also expressed concern about new agreements between India and the United States on sales of Predator drones and other American defense equipment, as well as commercial aircraft. Pakistan has had a long-standing military and intelligence relationship with the United States, and it has fought three limited wars with India since the 1960s.
But the more immediate concern for Pakistan is Afghanistan. In recent months, as the Trump administration debates policy options in the region, Pakistani officials have attempted to shake Afghan accusations of promoting cross-border insurgents and have been quick to send sympathetic messages for Afghan terrorism victims, but their gestures have so far been rebuffed.
At this point, officials in Washington appear likely to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan but have given few hints about how they will approach Pakistan amid a chorus of calls for them to punish or isolate it. India, in sharp contrast, is a close ally and benefactor of Afghanistan, which is appreciated in Washington but seen by Pakistanis of all political stripes as a direct threat to Pakistan’s influence.
“Trump has no business giving India an interventionist role in Afghanistan when, unlike India, it is Pak that shares a border with Afghanistan,” Imran Khan, the leading political opponent of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, tweeted Thursday. The joint statement by Trump and Modi, he said in a follow-up tweet, “has removed the fig leaf of morality and justice in U.S. foreign policy.”
Frustrated that the world fails to see its point of view and that Washington may be pulling away from a relationship Pakistan considered permanent if strained, Pakistan has now enlisted China’s help as a mediator with Afghanistan, the main issue that brought Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Islamabad this week, after first stopping in Kabul.
In the news conference here, Wang said Pakistan was playing a “vital role” to bring peace and stability to the region, and a spokesman for his office declared that Pakistan has been “at the front line of the counterterrorism fight.” Aziz, in turn, described Pakistan’s relationship with China as “strategic,” multidimensional and “all-weather.”
Some Pakistani commentators have warned that Pakistan is becoming too economically dependent on China and has pinned too many hopes on a relationship that may be driven largely by Beijing’s search for profitable investment returns and for platforms to display its global influence.
But so far, China’s foray into the mistrustful thicket of Afghan-Pakistani relations appears to have been low-key and helpful. It previously helped advance proposals by Pakistan to arrange peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, although they eventually foundered, and it is now undertaking some shuttle diplomacy between the two capitals.
Wang’s recent visits to Kabul and Islamabad led to three-way statements calling for greater cooperation on a variety of topics, a crisis mechanism to avert confrontations, a three-way dialogue among the countries’ foreign ministers, and a revival of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group that originally tried to arrange the Taliban peace talks.
Given the terse and angry tone of recent exchanges between Afghan and Pakistani officials, such small steps and bland language sound almost like a diplomatic coup.