The US-Indo Pacific Shift: Opportunities for Pakistan

Author Name: Omer Aamir      30 Mar 2021     Regional security/Region

The United States (U.S) National Defense Strategy of 2018 issued under the Trump administration states that the "failure to meet … defense objectives will result in decreasing U.S. global influence, eroding cohesion among allies and partners, and reduced access to markets that will contribute to a decline in our prosperity and standard of living." The strategy further states that "it is increasingly clear that China and RU.Ssia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations' economic, diplomatic, and security decisions." The strategy identifies China's long-term strategy that "it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future."

These definitions point toward an increasingly aggressive approach in the future likely to be adopted by the Pentagon regarding American adversaries in the Indo-Pacific region, where the U.S is seeking to bolster alliances and long-term engagements. Therefore, it can be argued that the U.S has adopted a neo-realist balance of power approach by supporting the underdogs in the Indo-Pacific. Similarly, China seeks to build a string of alliances and demarcate defensive zones in its Asia-Pacific “backyard”. The Chinese “century of humiliation” weighs sharply on their minds and they consider it logical to protect their sovereignty, including change of Taiwan status.

The U.S has three perennial adversaries in the Indo-Pacific theater: Russia, China, and North Korea. It has a string of allies, including Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Australia, and Japan. Mike Pompeo, the former United States Secretary of State, stated that "Our military has been very active in the region, ensuring that we have a presence so that we can ensure that there is, in fact, a capacity for a free and open Indo-Pacific." It has also activated the Quad, which has been termed as the “Asian NATO” by various analysts following the Malabar exercises in 2020. Quad is a grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.

According to Indian freelance author Yanis Iqbal, "While the U.S. cloaks its Indo-Pacific anti-China strategy in the rhetorical ragbag of insipid liberalism, it is important to remember that the American empire's policies are always guided by imperialist objectives." Therefore, one way of looking at it is through the lens of American imperialism, where the U.S seeks global hegemony. However, a second more appropriate and objective way is to see it through a neo-realist perspective. This perspective talks about the balance of power. Therefore, whenever there is an emerging power in the region, the established power tries to stagnate (read: counter) it through coercion or a string of alliances. This results in what Graham Allison has described as the “Thucydides trap.”

There are multiple ways for Pakistan to engage in the brewing “Thucydides trap” for dominance of the Indo-Pacific. Pakistan can adopt a few approaches in response to the situation and come up with pragmatic solutions. Pakistan’s predicament in this condition would be aptly guided by Franklin Roosevelt's quote that "a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor." The geo-political seas of current times are rough. The sailors at Pakistan's helm are often challenged with unchartered waters.

What are Pakistan’s options? Firstly, the rivalry is likely to generate friction, and Pakistan must avoid getting drawn into it. Secondly, Pakistan must forge and project its 'neutrality' as much as possible while protecting national interests. Thirdly, Pakistan can play a facilitator between the U.S and China akin to what it did in the early 1970s. However, it must avoid the pitfalls that the role of a facilitator brings. Mostly, acting as a bridge does not hold good for a state’s national interests if the returns are negligible. For instance, during 1971, Pakistan was unable to gather the allies' support whom it aided in brokering a deal when India intervened in East Pakistan. India had already signed a treaty of peace, friendship, and cooperation with the Soviet Union. Pakistan also expedited the Sino-U.S deal to foster a powerful alliance after the Soviet Union and India had signed this mutual pact. However, brokering this deal did little for Pakistan's cause, particularly in preventing the country’s dismemberment.

Opportunities for Pakistan lie in the realm of socio-cultural, diplomatic, and legal exchanges. Pakistan is a multi-ethnic, pluralistic state which can rightfully act as a conduit for bringing the Orientalist Chinese and Occidental Americans closer. There are ample ways through which Pakistan can undertake this. One example can be setting up a law center where American and Chinese lawyers are housed together to understand and conduct research on each other’s legal systems. Secondly, United States can be shown the benefits of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (“C.P.E.C”) to the overall global economic system.

It must be elucidated that U.S engagement with China is complex as the security-economic matrix is difficult to unravel. The United States and China are each other's largest trading partners. However, the issue of dominance in the Indo-Pacific undercuts their intertwined relationship. Nevertheless, the import-oriented businesses of the U.S do not prefer an antagonistic attitude towards China. Similarly, United States hosts a large Chinese-American population of more than 5 million. They act as a bridge between the two states.

Moreover, from Pakistan’s perspective, the myriad internal issues faces require an introspective rather than an external lens. General Bajwa at the Islamabad Dialogue talked about non-interference in the internal affairs of neighboring and regional countries. This is a significant policy shift and an omen for times to come. Bad governance, endemic corruption, rampant illiteracy, widespread structural poverty, and other lingering internal issues demand more expedient attention. Pakistan must insulate itself from the exogenous shifts that are likely to ripple from Indo-Pacific and focus on its myriad internal issues.

Some circles believed that the nuclear tests of 1998 were a precursor for shifting priorities as nuclear deterrence was used for economic engagement by world powers in previous decades. However, even nuclear deterrence assurance did not shift attention from a security-centric approach to an economic-centric one in the India-Pakistan case. This inhibition might partly be due to India developing capabilities to undercut Pakistani nuclear deterrence and increasing the conventional disparity, thereby lowering the nuclear threshold.

However, it is the dynamic situation in Afghanistan that has far greater opportunities for Pakistan externally and where it can play a role in regional peace. A viable peace - while protecting national interests - in the region will ultimately lead to greater regional connectivity and developmental partnerships. The U.S seeks a respectable withdrawal, whereas Pakistan seeks a 'stable and peaceful Afghanistan.' Pakistan must leverage the situation to maximize geopolitical gains externally and socio-economic ones internally. Pakistan can act as the sea route for landlocked Central Asia and Afghanistan. Pakistan's Foreign Minister has stated that the country remains committed to cooperation rather than competition.

Some individuals, such as ex-U.S Ambassador Cameron Munter are not very optimistic about the United States' future engagements with Pakistan, particularly as the American focus shifts towards Asia-Pacific. This shift, partly explained by the American public’s war-weariness in the Middle East and Afghanistan, will have many repercussions for Pakistan. There has been signaling by policymakers in the West regarding the Indo-Pacific shift, something alluded to by Hillary Clinton in 2011 as the 'Asia Pivot.' However, her Freedom of Navigation (“F.O.N”) calls, which paralleled this policy shift, were naïve considering China's checkered history with Western imperialism and its apprehension to such signalling

This analysis concludes that Pakistan's economic and internal situation does not afford it the option to involve itself in the situation developing in the grouping growing in the Indo-Pacific. Instead, Pakistan must seek to leverage itself wherever possible to reap maximum geo-economic dividends, i.e., developing economic connectivity and forging developmental partnerships in the region. Yesterday's lessons do not hold a good guide for tomorrow’s paths. Instead, innovative, ingenious, and incisive policies are required. As Dr. Moeed Yusuf referred to Pakistan's quandary that if the country had unlimited resources, it would have had the luxury of choices. However, as the situation stands today, this is not how it is. Instead, Pakistan has to maintain and build partnerships that can help secure its vital national interests, ensure the protection of its borders while simultaneously furthering its people's interests.


Omer Aamir is a researcher at Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies(CASS). He has done his B.A LL.B (Hons) from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). He intends to further his studies in International Law. The article was first published in National Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement(NIICE). He tweets at @pakistaniforeva and can be reached at

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