China and Iran are ostensibly moving towards what is being touted as a “comprehensive partnership”, if a leaked agreement between the two countries is to be believed. This agreement envisages potential Chinese investments of up to $400 billion in Iran. Analysts around the world, including in Pakistan, have already dedicated copious amounts of ink on assessing what impact this agreement would have on various stakeholders. What is confounding is the evident optimism, bordering on gullibility, among some self-professed ‘experts’ of the so-called Pakistani intelligentsia. One would think that history has taught Pakistan a lesson about being circumspect when examining the effects of such international moves on their security and well-being. Alas, they seem to suffer an affliction for self-congratulatory assessments in all facets of life, with breathless acolytes of political affiliations providing ‘expert analyses’ on television about issues from national security to the mundane.
Oft repeated is the maxim that if one does not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. For instance, the disdain with which one-time best friend USA treats Pakistan today is evident from frequent foreign policy utterances by the highest levels of US Government. As recently as 22 September, William Todd, President Trump’s nominee as US Ambassador to Pakistan informed the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “Pakistan must take sustained and irreversible action against terrorism”. Pakistanis never miss an opportunity to highlight that the US professes deep friendship with them when it is expedient and, subsequently drops them like a hot potato. If Pakistani policy makers do not take lessons from their own history, their relationship with China could go down the same road. Chinese investment in CPEC is estimated to be anywhere between $46 billion to $70 billion. This prima facie appears to be a huge amount, and should portend extensive development in Pakistan. It should however also be viewed as an additional tactic to glue Pakistan with iron brother, China. However, Pakistan was recently shocked when a leaked agreement indicated that Chinese investment in Iran under the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (SREB) is in the range of $400 billion, nearly six-fold of the prospective investment in Pakistan. The agreement includes development of the Jask Port in Iran, which is a mere few hundred kilometres from Gwadar. There is also indication of investment in the electricity sector in Iran, to aid it in eventually exporting electricity across the region. What then of Pakistan’s vision of self-sufficiency in power generation through the Thar Coal Project under CPEC? What then of Gwadar becoming a major hub of shipping in the region? What of the insurgents operating with impunity against Pakistan from across the border in Iran?
Optimists such as Dr Muhammad Tayyab Safdar of the University of Virginia tend to see positive outcomes for Pakistan in the China-Iran agreement. He speaks of Pakistan becoming the conduit for Chinese trade and energy in his elucidation for the Diplomat. He also mentions some issues highlighted in this article, but sheds a positive light on them, without specifics as to how the agreement will aid in Pakistan’s power generation, or how Jask will foment growth for Gwadar? Is Pakistan, then, to be a mere conduit or a major partner?
The strategic community in Pakistan is presently finding its feet in the rapidly evolving geo-strategic paradigm, post pandemic. As the world realigns, Pakistan is likely be caught flat-footed. Recent strained relations with Saudi Arabia, traditionally, one of its greatest supporters, followed by a Chinese drift towards Iran could be a precursor to Pakistan’s strategic inconsequentiality in regional dynamics. The Abraham Accords have also isolated Pakistan which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Coupled with their Turkish-leanings, it is very likely that Pakistan will soon be distanced by UAE and other Middle East nations. Saudi Arabia’s new 20 Riyal banknote issued in October this year has removed Gilgit-Baltistan from Pakistan’s map, a move clearly intended to humiliate Pakistan on the world stage, and particularly in the OIC.
Pakistan would do well to continuously re-evaluate its status in the Chinese calculus and make efforts to reduce potential China-Iran bonhomie, particularly if it comes at their expense. Pakistan’s response would be based on the axiom: ‘There are no permanent friends or enemies—only permanent interests’. Pakistan’s interests, for now, lie in making potential benefits of the CPEC more lucrative to China than the SREB. Else, Pakistan runs the risk of being used… yet again. Maybe it is time for Pakistan to extricate itself from its fool’s paradise and engage in some actual realpolitik, lest it give credence to the adage of forever being a bridesmaid, never the bride.