Pakistan’s Search for its Place in Southern Asia’s Evolving Order


Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a new series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competition — military, economic, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series

Southern Asia’s evolving geopolitics are leading to the intensification of the China-Pakistan nexus, a development that has been greeted in Pakistan with exuberance. Although the China-Pakistan “all-weather” friendship goes back decades, there appears to be in recent years a greater willingness in Islamabad to air frustrations with the United States while embracing China as the cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Much of this is in response to the deeply entrenched perception in Islamabad that Washington is tilting inexorably toward New Delhi. The Trump administration’s recent condemnation of cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan and its potential designation of Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism are lending credence to the notion that Washington is once again on the verge of abandoning a longtime partner. The shifting allegiances on the subcontinent have pushed Pakistan into the arms of China, even as it questions the value of its relationship with the United States.

Since India and the United States signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement in 2005, Pakistan’s response to perceived American slights has been to cry foul. While there may be some merits to Pakistan’s position, its responses to these exogenous shocks have been dictated by emotion and incredulity. If Pakistan is to navigate the evolving strategic environment in South Asia and compete for its interests effectively, it must adopt a more calculated, clear-eyed approach. This process must start with honest assessments of Pakistan’s strategic environment, what it might stand to gain or lose from spurning other powers (including the United States), and how to avoid provoking its neighbors into aligning with India. Pakistan needs to re-evaluate its tendency to antagonize the United States, avoid reflexive escalation vis-à-vis India, and be more honest with itself about the limitations of its Chinese partnership.

The Strategic Environment

U.S.-Pakistan Relations

Pakistan’s raison d’etre has been to prevent Indian domination and seek regional hegemony. Since Pakistan’s dismemberment in 1971 and India’s nuclear test three years later, Islamabad has focused on the interrelated strategic objectives of maintaining a robust military capability to deter Indian aggression, preventing Indian meddling in Balochistan and Sindh, and curtailing Indian influence along its northwestern frontiers. These expansive strategic objectives have required cultivating close ties to powerful patrons — both China and the United States — as a way to balance against Indian and Indian-aligned threats on Pakistan’s frontiers. Although Pakistani diplomats have never quite succeeded in getting their American counterparts to see Pakistan as the “pivot of the world,” they have extracted as much as possible from the U.S. relationship. Washington has provided Islamabad more than $30 billion in direct economic and military assistance, most of which was appropriated after the 9/11 attacks to reimburse Pakistan for its counterterrorism assistance. The United States has also used its hefty influence in the international financial system to help Pakistan secure debt relief as well as generous aid packages from the International Monetary Fund.

During the Cold War, Pakistan in its strategic calculations consistently perceived the United States to be a reliable patron. The invocation of the Pressler Amendment in 1990 forever altered Islamabad’s view of Washington. The Pressler debacle, which resulted in the suspension of U.S. aid to Pakistan until 2001, fed into a sense of betrayal and the perception that the United States was, at best, a fickle ally. This trust gap was reaffirmed from time to time with the Abbottabad raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, the Salala incident, and the Raymond Davis controversy. More recently, tensions have stemmed primarily from Pakistan’s inability or unwillingness to end its support to the Haqqani Network, which Washington assesses to be the most lethal actor in Afghanistan. In 2016, the United States withheld $300 million in military aid and declined to extend a loan to Islamabad to finance the purchase of additional American-made F-16s. Influential voices, including some on Capitol Hill, have called on the Trump administration to adopt a tougher line with Pakistan by considering revoking its status as a major non-NATO ally and, potentially, designating it as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Such strong-arming is unlikely to alter Pakistan’s strategic calculus, but it should at least force a frank evaluation of what Pakistan gains from the U.S. relationship and, therefore, what it stands to lose. Some in Pakistan’s power corridors appear to have concluded that there is not much reason to comply with coercive threats from the United States because Pakistan has little need of American assistance. This is too narrow a view. For one, while American aid dollars may be insufficient leverage on their own, U.S. ties generate billions for the domestic economy every year via foreign investment, remittances, and trade. For another, the United States seems likely to maintain a presence in Afghanistan for some years to come. Even if the Trump administration reverses course and orders a precipitous withdrawal, it is far from clear that Pakistan would benefit, particularly if India or Iran move to fill any security vacuum. Nuclear security cooperation is another reason Islamabad would be wise to avoid a complete rupture in its relations with Washington. Such assistance enhances Pakistan’s image as a responsible nuclear steward while reducing the risks of accidental or unauthorized use.

While hopes of any strategic alignment with the United States may have been dashed, Pakistan can still reap rewards from Washington by lowering expectations, reducing diplomatic friction, and remaining open to collaboration when doing so advances its interests. Pakistan could dramatically improve bilateral relations by expanding its counterterrorism efforts to include those actors who threaten American interests in the region, rather than focusing exclusively on those who target the Pakistani state.

U.S.-India Relations

Pakistan has further isolated itself through its counterproductive responses to warming relations between New Delhi and Washington. When India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998, the United States imposed sanctions on both countries, but also engaged India in a strategic dialogue aimed at resolving decades-old grievances. This dialogue set the stage for the waiving of sanctions and the effective negotiation of the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear deal, which granted India a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the right to engage in nuclear trade with NSG members without having to implement comprehensive international safeguards as a precondition.

Islamabad has stridently opposed Indo-U.S. strategic convergence, particularly the civil nuclear agreement. Pakistan seems to have been under the impression that Washington would grant it a similar deal. When these hopes did not materialize, Pakistan charged that the granting of an NSG waiver to India was proof of a discriminatory approach to nonproliferation and blocked further negotiations of the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. The United States, Pakistani diplomats argue, failed to appreciate that the Indo-U.S. deal would be seen in Pakistan as exacerbating fears of strategic encirclement and instability. The New Delhi-Washington accord has also been trotted out as a justification for Pakistan’s shift to a posture of full-spectrum deterrence and corresponding embrace of tactical nuclear weapons.

There are at least three problems with Pakistan’s response to the deal. First, the agreement has not been as effective as Pakistan has portrayed it to be. While it is true that the accord appears to have had a positive impact on Indo-U.S. relations, its implementation has been mired in disputes regarding the legal liability of American companies and appropriate mechanisms to track U.S.-supplied fissile material. Westinghouse, which had planned to sell six nuclear reactors to India, filed for bankruptcy last year. Second, leaving aside whether the deal was discriminatory, Pakistan’s apparent willingness to escalate a conventional conflict with India to the nuclear level via tactical nuclear weapons — a move it blames on the accord — is undermining Pakistan’s ability to convince the international community that it is a responsible nuclear steward. Full-spectrum deterrence poses a related problem: a “commitment trap” whereby Pakistan’s international standing and, perhaps, existence as a state are risked in a bid to maintain credibility. Finally, Pakistan’s new, escalatory posture may be encouraging India to believe that a preemptive strike against Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal might be warranted in certain scenarios.

None of this is to say Pakistan’s concerns regarding the deal are illegitimate or do not add to its security burden. The point is that the way in which Pakistan responds to these challenges matters and, so far, its responses are giving India an upper hand.

The Strategic Troika (India-Iran-Afghanistan)

Pakistan’s bilateral relations are trending downward with Iran and Afghanistan in addition to India and the United States. This is due to the increasing perception in Islamabad of a strategic troika — hatched in New Delhi, and involving Afghanistan and Iran — to encircle Pakistan and limit its strategic options in its near abroad. Several factors are contributing to this perception. New Delhi’s pledge of $1 billion in assistance to Kabul last year is the latest indicator of rising Indian-Afghan economic and political ties. India is also considering a modest $50 million military aid package to repair broken Afghan aircraft. Tensions along the Afghan-Pakistani border have been escalating. Iran has attacked border guards in Pakistan and threatened to strike militant safe havens as well. Furthermore, India is pursuing more direct strategic engagement with longtime Pakistani allies in the Gulf such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Most alarming to Pakistan is India’s investment of $500 million in the construction of the Chabahar Port, which envisions a transport-and-trade corridor stretching from Iran to India via Afghanistan and Central Asia, rather than through Pakistan. The deal, concluded in 2016, could give India access to Iranian crude oil and natural gas in addition to energy supplies in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and other Central Asian states.

Pakistan sees India’s participation in Chabahar as a strategic move that could threaten the security of the deep-sea port at Gwadar, which Pakistan has developed alongside China. The Beijing-Islamabad cooperation on Gwadar has been hailed as a “masterstroke” undermining India’s ability to enforce a commercial or naval blockade against its smaller rival.  It is far from clear, however, that an Indian presence at Chabahar spells doom for Pakistan. Experts have raised doubts about Chabahar’s economic viability, particularly due to the logistical and security challenges of moving high volumes of goods through an Iran-Afghanistan corridor. Western companies are unsure whether the Trump administration will impose new sanctions on Iran and, consequently, are hesitant to do business with the Indian firm managing the port’s construction. It is exceedingly unlikely, moreover, that the Iranians would invite the U.S.-aligned Indian Navy to station ships at Chabahar. Doing so could risk antagonizing Beijing, on which Tehran depends for more than $50 billion in annual trade and the anti-access/area-denial platforms it needs to protect its shores from U.S. coercive capabilities.

This troika of mutual interdependence among Afghanistan, India, and Iran was not part of Pakistan’s strategic calculations, but was made inevitable by Pakistan’s policies towards these three countries. Islamabad would be wise going forward to anticipate New Delhi’s competitive responses to Gwadar and other initiatives to avoid making India’s alleged encirclement strategy even more attractive to actors in the region. Pakistan cannot afford to pursue tit-for-tat responses to every Indian action in Southern Asia. Nor can it afford to antagonize all of its neighbors. Instead, Pakistan should embrace the logic of economic interdependence, which could expand its strategic options and improve its ability to cope with Indian maneuvers.


Fueled by mutual antipathy for India, Beijing and Islamabad have engaged in strategic cooperation for decades, with China even providing Pakistan with bomb designs and ballistic missiles for the latter’s nuclear weapons program. Recently, Pakistan has welcomed its deepening partnership with China, but there are already signs of challenges ahead. There is hope that Beijing’s pledge to invest $46 billion via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — the “flagship” of China’s Belt and Road Initiative — could result in dramatic improvements to Pakistan’s energy and infrastructure systems. However, let’s not kid ourselves: The arrangement is weighted heavily in favor of Chinese national interests, such as boosting regional development and alleviating excess capacity. The initiative could lead Pakistan into a “debt trap.” The Chinese, eager to protect their investments and laborers, may also constrain Pakistan’s choices in a future crisis with India.

Rather than put all its eggs in the China basket, the prudent path for Pakistan is to keep open as many strategic options as possible. This means, first and foremost, coming to an acceptance of what it gets out of the U.S. relationship and maintaining a hedge should China become a less reliable partner. It requires understanding the limitations of the Indo-U.S. strategic convergence, not overhyping it. It also demands carefully calibrating Pakistan’s pursuit of security vis-à-vis its neighbors to avoid security dilemmas and competitive spirals that leave it worse off in an increasingly competitive, uncertain environment.


Dr. Sannia Abdullah is lecturer in the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University. She is a Stanton Nuclear Security Post-Doc Fellow for 2017-2018.

Image: Al Jazeera English, CC