KARACHI – Experts believe the administration of US President-elect Joe Biden will benefit Pakistan by reducing pressure on China.
As Biden gave his acceptance speech at the weekend, Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote on Twitter: “Congratulations @JoeBiden & @KamalaHarris. Look forward to President-Elect Biden’s Global Summit on Democracy. … We will also continue to work with the US for peace in Afghanistan & in this region. “
Prior to Biden’s victory speech, Foreign Office representative Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri told reporters that Karachi was looking forward to working with the eventual winner.
Under Trump, the US has intensified its criticism of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, the $ 50 billion flagship project of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure investment that paves the way for Chinese influence, exports and telecommunications equipment.
Last November, Alice Wells, the US assistant secretary of state for South Asia, criticized CPEC for its lack of transparency and rising costs, implying that it creates a debt trap for Pakistan. “Lack of transparency could increase CPEC’s costs and encourage corruption, resulting in a heavier debt burden for Pakistan,” he told a Wilson Center event in Washington.
Wilson Center is a 52 year old think tank.
Ambassador Wells repeated the criticism on many occasions, despite his strong repudiation by Beijing and Islamabad. With Biden’s inauguration in January, experts see an opening for the US to support CPEC and end its criticism.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, believes Biden will try to take a more conciliatory position with China, which could require efforts to promote cooperation on issues like climate change. “I can imagine the Biden administration supporting efforts led by the US private sector to offer assistance on clean energy projects linked to CPEC,” he told Nikkei Asia.
Experts believe Biden will put a stop to the intense trade and diplomatic row fueled by Trump.
Malik Siraj Akbar, an analyst based in South Asia in Washington, said most Democrats do not view China as an enemy but as a competitor. So the Biden administration, he believes, is likely to try to mend those relations. “The US will also let China play its regional leadership role without interfering in CPEC-like projects,” he said, “because they are in line with America’s goal of seeing a stable and economically developing Pakistan.”
Akbar also has the view that Pakistan will gain strength in its fight against the new coronavirus with Biden at the White House. He said that under Biden, the US and China would most likely work together to end the pandemic. “Pakistan will be the beneficiary of the cooperation between the two economic powers,” he said.
While geopolitical experts believe Biden’s presidency will improve US-Pakistan relations, they also say it will have nothing to do with Pakistan-China relations.
US-China relations are likely to be a little less strained, leading to an increase in American-Pakistani relations but no effect on a strong Sino-Pakistani relationship, said Kugelman.
“Islamabad has never needed China more,” he said, “mainly because of the economic pressure of Pakistan, so I see the alliance remaining strong.”
At the same time, some experts are of the view that changes in the White House will not affect major changes in US policy toward China.
Mohan Malik, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies in Near East Asia in Washington, said Washington sees Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative as a predatory trap to ensnare developing countries on China’s outskirts.
He believes this view also shapes US policy towards CPEC, given the lack of transparency in the many infrastructure deals and high-interest loans that have forced Pakistan to seek IMF bailouts. “I don’t think US policy towards CPEC or Pakistan-China relations will undergo a big change if Biden wins the US election,” he told the Nikkei.
Malik also worries the Biden administration could adopt a new approach to Afghanistan and undermine Islamabad and Beijing’s plans for the war-torn country. Recently, Islamabad and Beijing have been working with Washington to ensure that the Afghan peace negotiations are successful and that the new government in Kabul can be friendly with Pakistan and China.
“If Biden decides to postpone a total withdrawal [of troops] from Afghanistan, “he said,” it will negatively impact Beijing-Islamabad’s plans for closer ties with Kabul under the new dispensation. “