The South Asia Channel

A capital with a view

A capital with a view

As the United States draws down in Afghanistan, seeks to rebalance towards Asia, and remains enmeshed in the Middle East, deliberations continue in Washington on a post-2014 Pakistan policy. But such discussions tend to view Pakistan through a South and Central Asian lens, from the Indo-Pak nuclear dynamic grounded in Kashmir (once again heating up) to the more nebulous New Silk Road initiative. Few analysts are creatively assessing how Pakistan might fit into the U.S.’s rebalance to Asia given the key role of its neighbors, India and China, and the potentially stabilizing effect of including Pakistan in a wider Asian economic web. Such an analysis partly turns on a question that has drawn scant attention: exactly how does Islamabad view the rebalance? 

Last month, I spoke on the evolution and elements of the rebalance policy during President Obama’s first term at the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, a leading think tank in Islamabad. My remarks coincided with the leak of the Abbottabad Commission report, a Pakistani inquiry into U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in May 2011. Encouraging the audience of former senior diplomats, army officers, academics, and journalists to think beyond the terrorism-related concerns of the day, I inquired about how Pakistan perceives the U.S. rebalance to Asia and, irrespective of the U.S. posture, how does it intend to plug into the economic dynamism of the Asia-Pacific for its own benefit? Five views emerged that reflect the strain on Pakistan, and its relations with the United States, as it seeks to transcend its troubles and assess its position in the wider region.

First, to some, the rebalance is "old wine in a new bottle." The United States has always been engaged in Asia with its military bases both far and wide, so the talk of rebalancing is mere rhetoric. Moreover, Washington is incapable of acting strategically, as shown by its misguided forays into Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, the latter of which has had dire consequences for Pakistan. 

Second, others claim that the rebalance is "pro-India" and "anti-China." As the Obama administration calls India a "key partner" in the rebalance, Pakistan continues to hear from its "all-weather friend" China that the policy is containment, plain and simple. Pakistan wants no part of a policy that bolsters its enemy and hems in its friend.

Third, attendants argued that the rebalance is irrelevant. Pakistan’s priority must instead be to get its economic house in order and to overcome its "global pariah" status. To the extent it can lift its gaze beyond its borders, it has enough to contend with India and Afghanistan.

Fourth, further responses suggested that Pakistan’s own efforts to look east through its "Vision East Asia" policy have been less successful than hoped. Attempts to enhance engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), for example, have faltered; ASEAN continues to deny Pakistan full dialogue partner status. The reasons potentially range from a desire to ensure ASEAN’s coherence to uncertainty about Pakistan’s contribution to concerns about an unwanted import: militancy. China thus remains Pakistan’s only viable avenue into the broader Asia-Pacific region. The same week I was in Islamabad, Pakistan’s prime minister was in Beijing pitching a China-Pak economic corridor that would funnel in greater trade and investment.

Fifth, participants believed that Pakistan has little room to maneuver. The United States and China are great powers, while Pakistan is a small global player. It does not have the ability to act strategically in an analogous manner and meaningfully project itself into the Asia-Pacific region. Instead it is at the mercy of a new great game.

Given Pakistan’s geography, travails, and anti-American sentiment, confusion and suspicion about the U.S. rebalance is understandable, just as the dearth of thought on how to tap Asia-Pacific’s prosperity or apply relevant lessons is striking. Skepticism in Islamabad overlaps with that in Washington, where patience mutually runs thin given a fractious counter-terrorism partnership. Moreover, Pakistan is seen as a conceptual misfit in a policy anchored in the Asia-Pacific.

Yet the rebalance may be a more elastic concept and extend beyond the Asia-Pacific. In his remarks on "The United States and the Asia-Pacific" last month, Vice President Joe Biden underscored Latin America’s role in the rebalance saying: "Our goal is to help tie Asia-Pacific nations together from India to the Americas." Meanwhile, others have argued that the rebalance should extend westward, beyond India, to include South Asia and the Middle East in an effort to match growing Chinese influence there. 

Given this potential fluidity, the Obama administration should reassess how Pakistan relates to the rebalance as it searches for a coherent and constructive relationship post-2014. There may not be a fit but nonetheless, gauging and engaging Islamabad is a good place to start.

Ziad Haider is the director of the Truman National Security Project’s Asia Expert Group. He served as a White House Fellow in the U.S. Department of Justice and as a national security aide in the U.S. Senate. You can follow him on Twitter at: @Asia_Hand.