Pakistan is once again all set to become a center-piece in the new emerging Cold War between the United States and China. At the moment, Pakistan is an economic disaster story. Yet its strategic location, its once strategic relations with Washington and ongoing strategic cooperation with Beijing will compel it into a situation where it cannot afford to remain aloof from rising competition and expected military tensions between two superpowers. US President Joe Biden attracted the applause of peace nicks around the world when he said—on the eve of the US-China Summit in Indonesia— that he would not allow competition with China to turn into a conflict. But Washington is very good at using high-sounding positive adjectives to camouflage its strategic fears of “enemies” with diplomatic niceties. The strategic debate in Washington tells a very different story about how US strategic elites view the rise of China as an economic power and its corresponding rise as a military giant.
Two recent documents issued by the US administration — “National Security Strategy” and “National Defense Strategy” identify China and Russia as strategic rivals and sources of military and strategic competition. A 2018 Report by the Rand Corporation—an independent Washington based thinktank – claimed that “U.S. officials and experts have significant degrees of uncertainty about Russian and especially Chinese intentions. Combined with some degree of aggressive behaviour, the uncertainty is producing intensifying fears about Russian and Chinese intentions and growing urgency about the U.S. response.” This quotation is directly taken from the report, which points towards a strong possibility of direct international competition between US and China on the one hand and US and Russia on the other hand. The report in fact points out a strong possibility of the emergence of a new Cold War: this time between China and the United States.
US experts, however, reject the possibility of US-China rivalry leading to division of the world into two rival geographical blocs like the ones which the world experienced in the post-Second World War till the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991. There are multiple poles of political and military power in different regions of the world and these countries or poles are unlikely to merge their political interests and identities in the larger blocs led by China and the United States, if at all it comes to that. American experts and think-tanks, however, have produced many reports during the past five years in which they have pointed out close cooperation between the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Pakistani military forces in the situation of military tensions between Washington and Beijing.
It appears that this perception of the Pakistan Army as siding with Beijing in any future military conflict is a product of the days when the Pakistani state was in full gear to incorporate the CPEC project into its economy and Gwadar port was recently handed over to a Chinese company. Since then, Pakistan seems to have slowed down on CPEC and not without reason: Pakistani military leaders purposely and publicly expressed their inclination towards close relations with Washington during the past two years. This, indeed, dispelled the impression that Islamabad was about to put all its eggs in a Chinese basket.
The new Cold War, this time, according to American experts, will be different in its strategic nature and geographical expanse. In the Cold War between the erstwhile Soviet Union and the United States, the two superpowers posed an existential threat to each other. It would be a different ball game this time, we are told.
“None of the great powers is set on posing an existential threat to others, and the number of states with unrequited territorial ambitions is very small. The competition is not over survival of nations or systems: It is about relative strength and success. Major investments and national strategies are likely to be focused on dominating certain industries, attracting investment, making innovative breakthroughs, and enhancing domestic growth rates and social prosperity. “Classical” great power objectives such as territory, colonial or quasi-colonial possessions, and achieving sufficient military power for wars of conquest are not likely to re-emerge,” reads a report of the RAND Corporation. “Global patterns of competition are likely to be complex and diverse, with distinct types of competition prevailing in different issue areas. The United States should think of the emerging era as an environment of multiple competitions, not a singular “strategic competition.””
US experts point out the possibility of competition between rule-based Western democracies led by Washington and revisionists China and Russia, which would be challenging the status quo in the international system. And hence they will challenge US dominance of the system.
Firstly, it is unlikely that the world will witness a united block of Western liberal democracies confronting an authoritarian China. Many of the Western liberal democracies are beneficiaries of business opportunities offered by China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Secondly, the “authoritarian world” consisting of China and Russia has problems of its own—China and Russia don’t see eye to eye on many international issues and there is a vast difference between capabilities and self-conception of the two countries, which will not allow them to form a block. Not surprisingly, Washington too wants to treat both of them differently on account of its vastly different economic capabilities.
Here is a lesson for military adventurists in Islamabad: a mythical Russia-China block doesn’t exist beyond your imagination. Russia is too small an economic power to pose any substantial threat to American dominance of the international system. China, on the other hand, is gearing up to pose such a challenge to Washington.
We can certainly gain from any economic and technological competition between China and the United States, something which President Biden referred to in his speech, only if we play our cards smartly and put our house in order. Any military competition between the two will hugely complicate our regional security calculus as well.
If India is strategic ally of Washington and the latter wants to use the former as a counterweight to China, and if we jump into Chinese lap militarily: this will make South Asia unstable and the most dangerous region of the world.
If, during the impending new Cold War, just like the previous one, the only product on offer by the Pakistani state on the international stage will be military manpower, then we are certainly doomed and nobody will stop us from sliding into another wave of military adventurism and mercenary roles. The persistent power struggle that we have been witnessing in our society since 2014 could be a manifestation or full-dress rehearsal of the proxy war of new Cold War rivals.
To put our house in order, we have to change the orientation of society from militarisation of social and political life towards an economic orientation.