Then-Vice President Joe Biden at the United Nations in 2014 in New York with a Pakistani flag in the background. Image: Getty via AFP

PESHAWAR – The transition from US President Donald Trump to Joe Biden inspires equal measures of hope and fear in Pakistan given the president-elect’s expressed views on rights, equality and democracy.

Analysts say Pakistan’s ability to balance ties with the US and China amid growing friction between the two superpowers will also set the tone for the US policy toward Pakistan under Biden.

Some analysts like to say that Pakistan runs with the hare and hunts with the hounds in regard to its policies towards the US and China. In late August, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan clearly took China’s side in an interview newscast with local TV channels.

Khan linked the future of Pakistan with China saying, “There should be no doubt in our mind that Pakistan’s economic well-being has now been intertwined with China, which stood by us through thick and thin as no other did.”

In contrast, Special Assistant on National Security to the Prime Minister Moeed Yousaf said that Pakistan is not picking superpower sides because of the symbiotic relationship it enjoys with the US, which he characterized as a “critical strategic partner.”

In an online debate arranged by the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank in October, Yousaf took the middle path in saying “We ultimately want to see ourselves as an economic melting pot for the region.”

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan attends talks with China’s President Xi Jinping (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 2, 2018. Photo: AFP/Thomas Peter/Pool

As Pakistan’s relationship has deteriorated with the US on an array of issues ranging from terrorism to nuclear proliferation over the past two decades, its economic and defense relations with China have grown by leaps and bounds.

Over the period China has become Pakistan’s closest strategic ally, supplying it with top-of-the-line defense equipment to make it into a regional military powerhouse. In exchange, Pakistan openly supports China’s stance on Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, while China backs Pakistan on its Kashmir issue with India.

Over the past five years, this cooperation has been further cemented by China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its local flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), entailing over $60 billion worth of Chinese investments in infrastructure consisting mostly of loans.

Trump’s administration, In line with its wider rivalry with China in recent years, galvanized a spirited resistance against Chinese BRI connectivity plans in Central and South Asia, and especially in Pakistan.

In November 2019, US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells delivered a forceful assessment of CPEC at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, wherein she spelled out the Trump administration’s general concerns about the BRI and CPEC, including in regard to “debt traps.”

Wells questioned the high cost and long-term impacts the debts incurred in the program would have on Pakistan’s faltering economy. She also criticized the opaque bidding process of CPEC projects and questioned whether the schemes were creating jobs for local Pakistanis or imported Chinese workers.

How much that narrative line will change under Biden is unclear. Local analysts and observers believe Biden has a wider awareness and better understanding of the Kashmir issue, a lingering territorial dispute that has sparked two of three major Indo-Pakistani wars.

Their hope for a more nuanced US understanding and perhaps more vocal approach to Kashmir stems from a policy paper on Biden’s agenda for the “Muslim American community” uploaded to his campaign website in June.

Indian forces on alert in Srinagar, Kashmir after three militants and a woman were killed in a clash in September, 2020. Photo: Muzamil Mattoo/NurPhoto via AFP

Biden has taken India to task over its controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act and has urged New Delhi to take steps to restore the rights of Kashmiris after a clampdown on the territory. Such measures, the president-elect asserted, are “inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy.”  

Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani rights activist, writer, distinguished professor at the Forman Christian College and former faculty member at Quaid-e-Azam University told Asia Times that he doesn’t foresee any major changes in US policy towards Pakistan under Biden.

“The ascendancy of the Democrats means that excesses committed against Kashmiris will get more noticed in Washington. This will irritate the [Narendra] Modi government and its relations with the US will likely not be as chummy as with Trump,” Hoodbhoy said, adding that the ground realities in Kashmir will not likely change but the clampdown could ease a notch or two under US pressure.

Hoodbhoy said that there was virtually no chance of Pakistan exiting China’s orbit and unlike after 1979, Pakistan has nothing sellable to the US apart from a peaceful resolution to the neighboring Afghanistan conflict, America’s longest-ever war.  

“Although the US would mildly prefer a peaceful Afghanistan, it will not be willing to put billions into a losing game. As for Kashmir and the Line of Control (LOC) … and Modi’s aggressive posture seems to be working well enough to keep jihadi forces out. In any case, they are not America’s worries,” he maintained.

The current opposition-led struggle for civilian supremacy in Pakistan, led by the Pakistan Democratic Movement, will be on the front lines during at least the early phase of Biden’s tenure. However, independent analysts and experts do not think Biden will wade into the conflict over the military’s influence over Pakistan’s politics.

“On matters of democracy and dictatorship, the US role in Pakistan will be marginal and perhaps only slightly greater than the UK’s. The slide in US moral authority during the Trump years will limit its lecturing to others,” Hoodbhoy said.

“On the other hand, Pakistan can expect sharp rebukes from the US and Europe if the Army dispenses with the current fig-leaf democracy and fully exposes itself to the world,” he said.

An Islamic militant in Pakistan in a file photo. Image: Agencies

Another issue that will be closely watched concerns Pakistan’s designation with the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a money laundering and terror financing watchdog which placed Pakistan on a grey list in February this year in a US-led move.

Mushahid Hussain Syed, a Pakistan Muslim League (N) senator, intellectual and foreign policy expert told Asia Times that Pakistan may get some FATF-related relief as Biden is expected to seek better relations with Muslim countries like Pakistan, Turkey and Iran.

“So, Pakistan gets a geopolitical breather under Biden and an opportunity to set its own house in order,” Mushahid speculated.   

Mushahid, like others, views the US as divided and weakened following the bitterly contested presidential elections. An inward-looking US under Biden, he said, will likely have a less interventionist foreign policy, which to his mind is a good omen for the war-riddled region.

“That means less pressure on Pakistan and more autonomy in the region to have strategic space for the next couple of years. The [US’] ‘do more’ mantra will be a thing of the past,” he added, citing the expected withdrawal of US troops from neighboring Afghanistan. 

“The US won’t get entangled in Pakistan’s domestic political squabbles, but Biden’s America will certainly be more receptive to complaints emanating from within Pakistan on issues about democracy, human rights and rule of law, which is good news for the opposition,” he said.