While Pakistani political elites fight it out among themselves over the possible outcomes of existing political situations, obscured from the sight of Pakistani people and elites are the significant developments taking place on the international horizon. Global events will have a decisive influence on political outcomes and decide the fate of Pakistani political structures more than the incessant infighting that is taking place in the heartland of Pakistani territory—central Punjab, the industrial core of Pakistan and the most densely populated area of the country. The new Cold War between Pakistan’s erstwhile strategic ally the United States and Pakistan’s all-weather friend China is heating up on the international stage. Any concrete political manifestation of this new Cold War will certainly drag Pakistan into the whirlwind of economic, political and military competition between the rising power of China and the existing superpower, the United States.
Pakistan is away from the industrial core of the Eurasian landmass, where American military power might have to confront Russian forces in plains and mountainous regions of Eastern Europe. Russia, a relatively minor power, is in alliance with the economic giant, China. The South China Sea is the great theatre where the Americans militarily have to confront China to protect US allies like Indonesia and Vietnam, and to hold the Korean peninsula, the new industrial core of the world.
In the emerging international political situation, Pakistani is seen by Washington as the hub of overly dangerous nuclear proliferation and extremist ideologies, while Chinese military planners see Pakistani territory that can provide Beijing with enough space to base its military hardware. Chinese military literature is filled with references to Pakistan as a probable base in case the Cold War with the US turns into a hot war in the South China Sea or the Korean Peninsula.
Everything is calm on the surface right now. And US President Joe Biden’s comment that he won’t allow competition with China to turn into a conflict is heartening for people overly worried about the commencement of the new Cold War. But the fact that both the United States and China are preparing for this imaginary situation turning into reality couldn’t be overstated. American military experts see the South China Sea and Korean peninsula as the possible arenas of military conflicts between the two superpowers. And any possible military conflict in the South China Sea would make the US and Western naval forces block Chinese oil and raw material supplies passing through the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. This will be when Gwadar and the Chinese presence at this southern port of Pakistan would provide the China with the required base that Chinese military literature so readily mentions in its latest writings.
Politically the world is far away from such a point or situation of conflict. The Chinese are on very friendly terms with the South Koreans—the American military ally on the Korean peninsula—and both see eye to eye on many issues relating to North Korea’s sabre-rattling. This minimises any possible point of conflict on the Korean peninsula. The South China Sea is no less calm—even minor incidents of Chinese ships trying to check American ships in the sea didn’t raise alarm bells.
But American military experts have been discussing a scenario where conflict in the South China Sea will lead to clashes in Arabian Sea. Pakistan and its coast will become overly important in such a strategic conflict between the rising power and the existing superpower.
Two important indicators should bring Pakistan strategic thinkers to start pondering over such scenarios.
First, American experts have started discussing the scenarios relating to the new Cold War and its military implications for different regions of the world. Pakistan often finds a prominent place in these discussions. Secondly, Chinese military literature sees Pakistan as a territory which will provide them with military bases in any possible international military conflict.
This possibility will again drag Pakistan into future superpower rivalry. Early this year, the Pakistani military inducted Chinese weapons systems of different varieties which will enhance its interoperability with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and enhance Pakistan’s Armed Forces’ reach deep into Arabian Sea. Even as these weapon systems were inducted into the Pakistani military the Indian media made a lot of hue and cry about their possible strategic and military implications for the region. As to what possible role these weapons systems – which include a fighter jet and a naval frigate – would play in the strategic and military situation in our region will be important for us both militarily and politically.
Pakistan cannot afford to be militarily part of any future tensions between China and the United States. This much is obvious and Pakistani military leaders have clearly pointed out that, as far as they are concerned, Cold War-style camp politics is a thing of the past. Unlike what happens in domestic politics, Pakistani military leaders’ wishes cannot become concrete realities on the international political stage just by a mere public statement or public speech. Military use of Gwardar and what role Pakistani military forces will play in the Arabian Sea is something that Pakistani strategic thinkers and military experts should seriously ponder upon.
In any event, it must be remembered that our political structures are in a state of flux. We have yet to decide decisively what we want to do with them. People in powerful positions have been openly and publicly talking against the parliamentary form of government and federal structure of the constitution. These powerful people have been dubbing freedom of expression as a vehicle in the hands of fifth columnists and those pursuing fifth-generation warfare against the state of Pakistan.
Two patterns from our political history will make a decisive impact on political outcomes in the coming days.
First, the Pakistan power elite is extremely adept in making use of their international connections to consolidate their grip on the power structure of the country. Four military coups are witness to this reality.
Second, the military-strategic logic of international politics has often been used in our past history to disrupt political processes in our country. The fact that the United States is a democracy and China is an autocracy where the legitimacy of the ruling elite is based on providing affluence to various classes, will hardly matter for Pakistan. The fate of the Pakistani political system will be decided by the military and strategic logic of the new Cold War.
The Pakistan state will once again be caught in a whirlwind of international politics where military conflicts and tensions may become the new normal – unless we muster the political will and financial and economic wherewithal to chalk out an independent course for our state and society.