Pakistan between the three superpowers

Date of publication: 16 February 2021

Today, Pakistan (translated from Urdu – “Land of the Pure”) is one of the most reliable allies of China in Asia, but at the same time claims a special role in the region and has huge mobilization resources. Suffice it to say that the country’s population at the end of 2020 was 218 million 741 thousand people. In addition, Pakistan has nuclear weapons, which is extremely important in determining its place and role in the region.

But if its weight in the big geopolitical game in the Middle East is very large, then in Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific region (ITR) as a whole it is not very significant yet. However, interest in Pakistan has increased significantly due to the escalation of the conflict in Ladakh between India and China last year. Moreover, some analysts saw this conflict as almost a prologue to the Third World War, since Ladakh could well play the role of Sarajevo or Gleivitz. And in this case, even if the political establishment wanted to, Islamabad could hardly stay away.

One of the main defining constants of Pakistan’s foreign policy development in the last decade is its distancing from the United States and its unwillingness to continue being its vassal. There are several reasons for this, and each requires separate consideration. We will indicate only two main ones. First, the invasion of Pakistani territory by US forces in 2008, which resulted in the death of many civilians, includes women and children. Secondly, the murder of Osama bin Laden in 2011 was carried out by the Americans on the territory of Pakistan, and without prior notification of its authorities.

Let’s also not forget that at one time, in his usual peremptory manner, US President Donald Trump accused Islamabad of aiding terrorism, calling it a sponsor, and a couple of years ago announced that Washington was freezing military assistance to Pakistan. All this has forced Islamabad to turn towards China, which invests a lot of money in the Pakistani economy, and is also an ally of Islamabad in the confrontation with India.

One will see how the new US administration of Joe Biden will build relations with Pakistan, but the recent trend towards rapprochement between Islamabad and Beijing is unlikely to come to naught, especially in the military-technical field. At the same time, it would still be illegal to call the Celestial Empire an ally of anyone, including the “Land of the Pure”. After all, to paraphrase the British Prime Minister of the Victorian era, Lord Palmerston, we can say that China “have neither eternal allies nor permanent enemies, but its interests are permanent and eternal…”

It is worth noting here that recently the United States has been stubbornly trying to win over India, forming a new geopolitical reality aimed at deterring China in the IT sector. This could seriously affect Pakistan’s economic and geopolitical interests in the region. This is especially true of the Indian Ocean, and to be more precise, the Arabian Sea, which is the zone of directs military and economic interests of Islamabad. First of all, we are talking about the port of Gwadar, which in 2016 Pakistan leased to China for a period of 43 years, which is very profitable for Islamabad in financial and economic terms.

Speaking about Gwadar, it is impossible not to touch on Pakistan’s relations with another important and influential state in the region – Iran (IRI), whose interests also extend beyond the region of the Middle East. Iran has at its disposal the only port that provides it with access to the Indian Ocean – Chabar. So, India is the main sponsor of the development of this Iranian port, which only confuses the tangle of contradictions in the Persian Gulf. Through Chabar, New Delhi gets access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. In this regard, it is quite natural that neither Islamabad nor Beijing likes the rapprochement between Iran and India. It seems that Washington is not happy about the alliance between Tehran and New Delhi.

However, it is worth noting here that having taken a course towards rapprochement with India, Iran is unlikely to want to quarrel with China, which today is its main investor. It is no secret that the Middle Kingdom is primarily attracted to Iranian oil and gas fields, as well as the opportunity to use Iran as a market for its goods. For this reason, Beijing is not interested in the deterioration of Iran-Pakistan relations and will try to maintain stability throughout the New Great Silk Road.

When one talks about Pakistan’s relations with the countries of the Islamic Republic of Iran, we cannot ignore Islamabad’s relations with Moscow. In recent years, they have been developing step by step, although, perhaps, in insufficient volume. However, it should be noted that in 2015, Pakistan signed a contract for the purchase of Russian Mi-35M transport and combat helicopters in the amount of $153 million. The Russian-Pakistani Economic Corridor (RPEC) is also becoming a reality. Its importance for our country is determined by the possibility of access to the Indian Ocean, which provides Russia with year-round navigation. In turn, Pakistan will receive significant economic dividends from the RPEC in the future.

For Moscow, which has recently been reorienting its foreign policy from the West to the East, Pakistan is in the sphere of Russia’s interests. The very logic of the development of events suggests to Moscow that it can, for example, act as a mediator in establishing a normal dialogue between Islamabad and New Delhi. Moreover, since 2017, Pakistan and India have been full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), where Russia has an undeniable weight and influence. However, in the process of rapprochement with Pakistan, Moscow faces a difficult task: not to spoil strategic relations with its traditional partner – India.

Returning to the conversation about the place and role of Pakistan in the region, most analysts agree that despite the fact that it is the only Islamic country that has nuclear weapons, Islamabad can only claim the status of one of the influential powers of the ITR, but hardly anything more. Although his role and ambitions one should not underestimate. It is enough to recall the recent statement of the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan about the need to strengthen unity in the Muslim world and about the readiness of Islamabad to mediate in the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Tehran, we recall, supported this initiative of the Pakistani leader.

In conclusion, it can be noted that with the arrival of a new administration in the White House, which, without any doubt, will try to unfreeze relations with Pakistan, the world is waiting for a complex geopolitical game in IPR. And Islamabad in this game is assigned, although not the main, but a very significant role – three superpowers will fight for influence on it.

Sergey Sajenko, international analyst



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