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

PESHAWAR – Pakistan gave the US-sponsored virtual “Summit for Democracy” a miss after remaining ambivalent for days about joining the event in official fear of annoying its all-weather strategic ally China and thereby potentially jeopardizing over US$60 billion worth of Chinese investment in the country.

Pakistan’s foreign office did not explicitly announce that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s elected government turned down the US invitation but media reports indicate that’s what happened, likely under Beijing’s pressure.

China reportedly contacted Pakistani authorities in the two weeks before the summit to lobby them against participating. Days after Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had a late-night telephone conversation with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Pakistan officially decided to skip the summit.

As Pakistan’s Foreign Office announced the decision, official circles in Islamabad were reportedly worried that Washington would be irked by the snub, though no official US statement was made on Pakistan’s non-participation.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office said in a statement:

“We remain deeply committed to further deepening democracy, fighting corruption, and protecting and promoting the human rights of all citizens. We value our partnership with the US, which we wish to expand both bilaterally as well as in terms of regional and international cooperation. We remain in contact with the US on a range of issues and believe that we can engage on this subject at an opportune time in the future. Pakistan will, meanwhile, continue to support all efforts aimed towards strengthening dialogue, constructive engagement, and international cooperation for the advancement of our shared goals.”

Last week, Pakistan Prime Minister Khan referred to the US democracy summit overture as a “Cold-War approach”, claiming that Pakistan did not want to be a part of any political bloc in the region but instead wanted to play a role in bridging the gaps between the US and China. However, Khan’s assertions did not allay fears that Pakistan virtually lent support to the Chinese bloc by skipping the US confab.

President Joe Biden aims to rally global democracies at an upcoming summit. Photo: AFP / Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Mushahid Hussain Sayed, a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz senator, told told Asia Times that the government took the right decision to skip the event. He said that the government wanted to send a message to the US not to take Pakistan for granted and treat it with the respect it deserves given the help Islamabad delivered for the US in Afghanistan – a view not shared by all in Washington.

He said the Biden administration’s attitude towards Pakistan has been either cold or hostile and often demeaning, including when US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited India in October but snubbed visiting Islamabad. Mushahid noted the US has not put forward any forward-looking proposals for bilateral relations, opting instead to blame Pakistan for its failures in Afghanistan.

“In my view, there were reasons for skipping the summit…Instead of thanking Pakistan for evacuating its citizens and assets out of Afghanistan – the CIA chief visited personally to Islamabad for that purpose – the US continued to scapegoat Pakistan, taking scant regard to its policy failures on Afghanistan,” Mushahid added.

China was the first to support Islamabad’s decision to snub the virtual summit meeting. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson and Director General Information Department Lijian Zhao wrote in a tweet: “Pakistan declined to attend democracy summit. A real iron brother! The people who sustain the worst losses are usually those who overreach, including all those who think they are calculating enough to play the “Taiwan card.”

The Biden administration peeved China by inviting Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province rather than a self-governing country, to the democracy event.

Mushahid believes that the summit was not really about democracy promotion but rather played the democracy card to isolate China and Russia. “The summit was using the banner of democracy but the agenda was an ideological Cold War perspective to promote an anti-China conclave,” he said.

Pakistan-China ties have grown in recent years. Image: AFP

“We know the US reaction in the past when Pakistan took decisions contrary to Washington’s desires. It happened on our China policy under Ayub Khan in the 1960s or the nuclear program under Bhutto in the 70s or Mian Nawaz Sharif testing the nuclear Bomb in 1998. [But] whenever Pakistan faced US sanctions, we came out better in the end,”

He recalled that in the 1960s, following US sanctions, Pakistan started an indigenous defense production program and in 1990 after the Pressler Amendment, the country built its own nuclear capability. “In any case, the US should know that the road to peace, security and stability in the region lies via Islamabad and for the US in the region, Pakistan is the only game in town,” he added.

Washington extended invitations to 110 countries, including India, Pakistan, Maldives, Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines from the Asia-Pacific region. Only four countries, namely Pakistan, India, Maldives and Nepal, were chosen for the summit from the South Asian region. Notably, the US did not invite Bangladesh.  

“One-third of the countries invited to the democracy summit was termed by the US think tank Freedom House as ‘partly free’, including Modi’s India and  Bolsonaro’s Brazil, while Turkey and Sri Lanka, both democracies, were penalized for their independent foreign policies,” Mushahid claimed.

Follow FM Shakil on Twitter at @faq1955