Optimism about Pak-US Ties during Biden’s Presidency: Warranted or Not so Much?

Author Name: Hasaan Tahir       13 Jan 2021     Global view

With the victory of Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the 2020 United States presidential elections, many in Pakistan are jubilant and anticipating a positive stimulus in bilateral relations. While it is true that a state’s national interest drives bilateral relations and realpolitik often dominates engagement, but sometimes individuals also play a vital role in giving impetus to interstate relations.

Joe Biden, the 78-year-old Democrat is padding up to replace Donald Trump in the White House on 20th January, 2021 faced with serious challenges both at the domestic and international front awaiting his presidency. From frenzied COVID-19 to rapidly deteriorating economy, widening rift with China to resetting America’s ties with disgruntled allies will test Biden’s diplomatic capabilities honed in the days of his Vice Presidency during Obama’s eight years of power from 2008 to 2016. For any President in office, tackling the pandemic, along with restoring the American economy might be foremost priority, but dealing with China and resetting engagement with the outer world will be the real test, at least as viewed from an external lens.

There is news that American leading pharmaceutical firms (Pfizer and Moderna) are inching closer to roll out an effective vaccine to control the Coronavirus and things might start normalizing once it gets available widely for the public. However, that moment is still far away owing to the complexities involved in approving the vaccine and its effectiveness. For the new President, resuscitating the US’ dwindling economy will be a Herculean task amidst historically high unemployment and trade spat with China which has paused for now, in the form of Phase-I trade deal in January this year. Democrats often see China as a competitor and believe in more international economic engagement in order to overshadow Beijing’s outward commitments. Trump’s predecessor President Obama introduced the ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy and ‘TransPacific Partnership’ with the intend to revitalize Washington’s commitment with its allies in Asia. However, Trump turned the former into a kind of military bloc and withdrew from the latter. The Chinese began to see Trump’s move as attempts to form an Asian NATO to encircle China and view such developments as a reflection of a Cold War mindset.

Trump’s ‘America First’ mantra has inflicted greater damage to US primacy, loss of allies and conceded the field for China to gain ground. With only a few weeks left in his Presidency, the Trump administration has announced more sanctions on fourteen Chinese individuals, hence taking hostilities to new heights from where bringing down the temperature for next administration would be a challenge.

Democrats are viewed as more internationalist. They flag American democratic values and are more concerned about human rights violations. Even Joe Biden himself appears quite vocal on grave suppression and human rights violations by Indian Forces in the Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir Valley. These factors give optimism to Pakistan United States relations during Joe Biden’s era commencing from next month.

Joe Biden played a significant role in getting approval of the Kerry-Lugar Bill under which Islamabad received financial assistance of $7.5 billion from 2010 to 2014. He will be the only sitting President who knows Pakistan very well and attaches greater importance to Islamabad. He has worked closely with the Pakistani military and facilitated several state-level visits to Washington.

For Islamabad, the greater challenge will be balancing its ties with both China and the US amidst increasing rivalry between the duo. Although there is optimism that Biden’s team will work to tone down existing tensions with China, but this contest will keep testing each other’s resolve. Also, with the end of the Afghan mission, American interests in the region vis-à-vis Pakistan will likely lessen in relevance.

After the 2008 elections in the US, Joe Biden as Vice President, during his visit to Afghanistan told Hamid Karzai that Pakistan was fifty times more important to the US than Afghanistan. Washington’s strategic dependence on Pakistan may squeeze, but bilateral engagement will remain intact. One of the best domains where the two need to work together is economic as Pakistan’s sitting government is seeking foreign inflows and boost in exports. Islamabad must activate its lobby in Washington in order to sensitize the upcoming administration to increase cooperation in the geo-economic domain, as Biden is already well aware of Pakistan’s financial difficulties.

Like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Islamabad should ask Washington to come up with a similar package in order to alleviate Pakistan’s dwindling economy. Instead of previous aid in form of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) or Kerry-Lugar Bill, Washington should invest in Pakistan’s socioeconomic sectors and infrastructure projects. In order to maintain balance in relations with China and US, Pakistan must be recipient of economic investments and avoid inclination toward any side.

Hasaan Tahir is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies, Pakistan. He can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com