The main focus of Pakistan as US President-elect Joe Biden gears up to take over in January 2021 does not appear to be a comprehensive reset of relations after the trauma of the President Donald Trump’s years but how to ensure that Indo-US relations do not continue to deepen.
For this, Pakistan will try and build on Biden’s regular visits to Pakistan since the 1990s, his old connections with and knowledge of Pakistan as also his experience as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and of Barack Obama’s White House. Biden, after all, was the original architect of the Kerry-Lugar bill and the policy of engagement with the civil government to support a sustainable long-term relationship with Pakistan.
The key strand in its strategy is to stress the necessity of Indo-Pakistan equivalence and the need for the US to adopt a balanced and equitable approach towards both countries. While Pakistan’s quest for parity with India is as old as a partition of the sub-continent, most recently in an interview with Der Spiegel, Imran Khan had reiterated that Pakistan expected even-handed treatment from the US with respect to India.
Another key component, signalling its own insecurities, is to warn Biden about India. Thus, Imran Khan in his interview said: ‘The US thinks India will contain China, which is a completely flawed premise. India is a threat to its neighbours, to China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and to us.’ Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN Munir Akram in an interview called the US-India strategic partnership a “wrong choice,” and advised that improving ties with Pakistan could prove extremely beneficial for the incoming administration.
An adjunct to this theme is to try and chip away at a central pillar of Indo-US relationship – shared democratic values– by stressing that such values were fast dissipating in India; that India was becoming exclusivist, violating democracy and human rights and finally, the Imran Khan rant of India becoming an extremist and fascist country under the BJP government.
The greatest expectation, of course, is on Kashmir–that Biden will robustly support ‘American’ values that means a greater emphasis on democracy, human rights and freedom of expression all around the world. Translated into action Pakistan is hoping that this would mean that Biden as president would strongly address the issue of the removal of the special status of the J&K, factor in adherence to human rights and castigate India for the alleged repression there.
Much has also been made of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s statement in October 2019 that: ‘We have to remind Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping track of the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.’ Pakistan hopes that this would be translated into political action.
Another thread of concern is Washington’s China policy. Pakistan is hoping that under Biden the US would find a way of competing with China without conflict. This could ensure Pakistan not becoming totally dependent on China and the US still finding some use for it.
Pakistan is concerned that if Biden goes the Trump way in dealing with China, it would have an adverse impact on it, on its need for international financial institutions like the IMF, on trying to extricate itself from the ‘grey list’ of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and especially on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Of concern to Pakistan are the views of Kamala Harris on the human rights violations of the Uighurs. In an interview, she had said: ‘China’s abysmal human rights record must feature prominently in our policy toward the country. We can’t ignore China’s mass detention of more than a million Uighur Muslims in “re-education camps” in the Xinjiang region, or its widespread abuse of surveillance for political and religious repression.’ Were the Biden administration to make this an important element in its China policy, Imran Khan would no longer be able to feign ignorance about the Uighur problem as he has done in the past.
Pakistan would also be looking closely at the Afghanistan policy of Biden. It would look to capitalise on what then-Vice President Joe Biden had told Afghan President Karzai in 2008 that Pakistan was 50 times more important than Afghanistan for the US. However, the Biden administration is bound to look at the US-Taliban agreement of February 2020 and especially credible reports of the Taliban continuing to maintain ties with Al Qaeda, the unacceptable levels of violence and the stalled intra-Afghan dialogue. This will entail increased pressure on Pakistan to deliver on its promises.
Well aware that the new administration will be absorbed in internal issues, at least in the short term, Pakistan has devised its own strategy to get it to focus on the subcontinent. This includes, for the moment, activating the LoC with caliber-escalation firepower and producing a dossier accusing India of fomenting terrorism in Pakistan. Both are geared to put out the message that the region is a nuclear flashpoint that the incoming administration should not ignore.
However, the reality check for Pakistan is that Indo-US relations are deep and broad-based, something that was underlined by the recent signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). What Pakistan would find uncomfortable is that in 2008, Biden garnered the support of other Democrats to back the India-US civil nuclear deal. Moreover, in an interview in 2006 as a Senator, Biden had stated: ‘My dream is that in 2020, the two closest nations in the world will be India and the United States. If that occurs, the world will be safer.’ He now has the opportunity to translate his dream into reality.
A policy paper released during the presidential campaign noted that the Biden administration would place a high priority on strengthening the Indo-US relationship by pushing India to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, continuing co-operation on terrorism, climate change, health and trade, working towards a multi-fold increase in bilateral trade. The paper recalled the lead role played by Biden, both as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Vice President in the Obama administration, in systematically deepening strategic engagement, people-to-people ties, and collaboration with India on global challenges.
Ultimately, Pakistan would have to accept that the Pak-US relations have been and are likely to remain transactional due to lack of substantive content. The US will remain engaged on issues like the safety of Pak nuclear weapons and terrorism but Afghanistan apart, there is very little that Pakistan has to offer positively to interest the US.
Compounding the problem is the fact that Imran Khan had criticized the award given by the then PPP government to Biden in 2009 for his role in pressuring President Musharraf to give up power and return Pakistan to democracy.
Pakistan will also have a hard time selling an anti-India narrative simply because of its own track record whether about ‘missing persons’, the ‘kill and dump’ policy in Balochistan, the daylight murders of Ahmadis and those perceived to have indulged in blasphemy, the rampant abduction and forced conversion of minor Hindu, Christian and Sikh girls as also the appalling persecution of the media under Imran Khan. Its charges against India on terrorism would be dismissed out of hand like similar dossiers were dismissed in 2015.
The Biden presidency is also likely to see the return of the traditional and mainstream foreign policy establishment with area specialists providing crucial policy inputs, something absent under President Trump. They will be aware of Pakistan’s past duplicity of supporting the Taliban while pretending to be a US ally against terrorism. This will not bode well for Pakistan.
Hence, despite all its efforts, it is unlikely that Pakistan would be able to succeed in trying to prevent the further strengthening of the Indo-US relationship under Biden. At best, Pakistan could look to nudge the US to restore the policy of aid that had taken a hit under the Trump presidency and hope that the deepening New Delhi-Washington relationship would not further enhance the disparity with India.