Pakistan will remain unmoved by Donald Trump threats: International experts

Pakistan will remain unmoved by Donald Trump threats: International experts
A key plank of U.S. President Donald Trump's new strategy to turn around the 16-year conflict in Afghanistan will probably falter for a reason few of his voters would realize: China.

On Monday, Trump outlined an open-ended commitment to the conflict in Afghanistan that pledged more troops and diplomatic outreach to the Taliban. Importantly, Trump publicly tried to pressure Pakistan to end safe havens for terrorists who are striking at Afghanistan. A day later, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson followed up Trump's comments, adding that Pakistan "must adopt a different approach."

But this aspect of the Afghan strategy is likely to founder because of China's increasingly close economic ties with Pakistan, which reduces American leverage.

With more than $50 billion in planned infrastructure projects and strong diplomatic support for its positions, American threats to withdraw billions in military aid are becoming less worrying for the powerful army, which dominates foreign policy.

"China is the shield now behind which Pakistan can be expected to continue to play," said Harsh Pant, an international relations professor at King's College London. "The more aid America will cut, Pakistan will be expecting China to fill the vacuum."

Pakistan has long denied it harbors terrorists. But despite rising frustration from U.S. lawmakers over designated terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network -- who strike Afghanistan allegedly from inside Pakistan -- China's support for its ally means Pakistan doesn't need to alter course.

In the last four fiscal years, China has directly invested $2.8 billion in Pakistan compared with the $533 million inflows from the U.S., according to Pakistan's central bank. Chinese banks have also helped Pakistan plug its widening deficits. Pakistan received  $848 million in loans from China in the six months through December 2016 to finance the country's "growing current account gap," according to the central bank.

Pakistan's foreign ministry released a defiant statement after Trump's speech saying China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi "lauded Pakistan's contributions and great sacrifices made in the fight against terrorism" and the "international community should fully recognize these efforts."

Later that evening, the foreign ministry released another statement calling Trump's comments part of a "false narrative." It also said Trump's strategy will likely fail as U.S. military action hasn't brought peace to Afghanistan in 16 years and probably won't "in the future."

"China is at the moment supporting and helping Pakistan's economic development and neutralizing part of the American argument" pressuring Islamabad, said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst based in Lahore.

Waning Aid

Amounts paid out to Pakistan under a U.S. coalition support fund have fallen 62 percent from $1.44 billion in 2013, with hundreds of millions blocked in the past year as American officials said Pakistan wasn't doing enough to root out groups like the Haqqanis.

Threats to withdraw U.S. military aid entirely aren't going to have much impact, since the U.S. needs Pakistan for its broader efforts in South Asia, Rizvi said. Even if Washington chooses to get tough on Islamabad, "Pakistan can survive even without any American assistance."

On Wednesday, Pakistan's army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, told U.S. Ambassador David Hale the military isn't looking for funding, but wants recognition of its contribution in the fight against terrorism. At the same time, Pakistan's government stressed it doesn't want to alienate the U.S.

We won't "turn our back on the rest of the world on the back of Chinese support," said Miftah Ismail, an economic adviser to Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. "We want to be friends with every country and America has a role to play."