Despite its strategic location as a primary littoral state in the Indian Ocean Region, Pakistan has largely eluded discussions on the Indo-Pacific. While the Biden administration’s expanded definition of the Indo-Pacific now includes the whole of the Indian Ocean, Pakistan finds no mention in the 18-page Indo-Pacific strategy document.
Increasing U.S.-China strategic competition has led to diverse South Asian geopolitical alignments. New Delhi’s position on non-alignment has evolved to accommodate a closer relationship with the United States in response to its fractured relationship with Beijing. China, Pakistan’s “all-weather” strategic partner, sees the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific strategy as an attempt to “contain and encircle” its borders. This perception also underscores Islamabad’s hesitancy to be part of any framework potentially seen as “othering” Beijing. Conversely, Washington’s perception of Pakistan’s increasing dependency on China gives policymakers pause on including Pakistan in mainstream Indo-Pacific discourse.
For Islamabad, conditional receptivity towards the evolving Indo-Pacific discourse can help build ties with the United States “on their own” and not through the “lens of China.” Additionally, Pakistan’s National Security Policy (2022-2026) envisions a paradigmatic shift from geo-strategy to geo-economics, which has important implications for its maritime policy planning. Islamabad’s history of “maritime blindness,” which scholars attribute to Pakistani policymakers’ “land-oriented” impulses, is also responsible for the lack of Pakistani participation in shaping the discourse. Pakistan Navy’s Chief of Naval Staff recently acknowledged a greater focus on Pakistan’s marine economy.
For Washington, regional and international dynamics create opportunities to persuade Islamabad of its cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’s inclusive framework by encouraging its participation in mutually beneficial initiatives for the region. Doing so has the added strategic benefit of waning Chinese influence in Pakistan. For both countries, pivoting to the Indo-Pacific would require a radical rethinking among policymakers, which, while unlikely in the foreseeable future, demands attention as it could positively contribute to regional and international security.
Why Should the United States Engage with Pakistan Under the Indo-Pacific Framework?
A recurring criticism directed against Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy is that the United States is preoccupied with commitments in the Pacific Ocean and ignores the Indian Ocean. Recently, there has been greater legislative attention on the Indian Ocean’s salience within the Indo-Pacific strategy. Washington can potentially review Pakistan’s critical role in shaping regional maritime geopolitics through the Indo-Pacific strategy and take advantage of this newfound momentum.
An increasing number of multi-country naval exercises in the Arabian Sea indicate the nascent emergence of different power coalitions. Iran, Russia, and China held their first-ever trilateral joint naval exercise, codenamed “Marine Security Belt,” in 2019—which Iranian media showcased as a signal of a “new triangle of sea power,” overtly directed at ending the alleged “era of American free action in the region.” Islamabad declined Iran’s offer to participate in the war game. According to Pakistani analysts, the Pakistani Navy held its own Regional Maritime Security Patrol built on the foundations of a “region-centric approach to maritime security.”
Pakistan’s participation in U.S.-led Combined Task Force 150 indicates that Pakistan is not opposed to U.S. maritime presence in the region. Pakistan participated in one of the four task forces operated by the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) covering the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean, and Gulf of Oman. These initiatives provide Washington with strategic space to maneuver its maritime relationship with Pakistan. By persuading Islamabad of the Indo-Pacific approach to maritime security—premised upon the need for an inclusive, cooperative, and integrated approach to common non-traditional security threats—Washington can create space for Pakistan to take a greater role in regional coalition building.
Pakistan remains too important to be ignored by Washington due to its crucial location and ability to shape regional geopolitics. In the past, Washington’s policy towards Pakistan has focused on traditional security sectors, mostly counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan, due to which U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has left a gaping void in bilateral relations. As both countries look for a strategic shift in relations, Washington can involve Pakistan through the multilateral Indo-Pacific framework and open avenues of engagement amid foreign policy bandwidth constraints in Washington.
Why Should Pakistan Engage with the United States Under the Indo-Pacific Framework?
Arguably, Pakistan’s most significant hesitation in participating in the Indo-Pacific framework has been the fear of provoking its closest ally, China. Politically and strategically, China is significant for Pakistan, especially in the wake of rapidly changing regional and global developments. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative’s “crown jewel” is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which seeks to revive Pakistan’s economy and open up avenues for regional integration. However, the lack of progress in achieving its economic aims creates opportunities for Islamabad to diversify its regional economic partnerships.
Pakistan enacted “Vision East Asia” in 2003, which sought to reinvigorate ties with Southeast Asia through ASEAN but has failed to deliver tangible results. As concerns about Pakistan’s “debt trap” intensify, Islamabad may look to revive “Vision East Asia,” which holds great economic potential. This can encourage Pakistani policymakers to review its assessment of the Indo-Pacific, which is finding increasing worldwide acceptance. Although CPEC may provide a scalable economic platform, a multilateral framework with greater regional acceptance in Southeast Asia and aligns better with Pakistan’s vision may be a viable alternative.
Pakistan is a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum. An Indo-Pacific approach premised on and supporting ASEAN centrality, which is repeatedly reiterated in U.S. declarations on Indo-Pacific, helps Pakistan convey its centrality in the Indian Ocean to a larger Southeast Asian audience—while opening newer avenues of dialogue with ASEAN states. Notably, Beijing has extended support for “increasing synergy and cooperation with ASEAN” to implement its Indo-Pacific outlook.
In the past, Pakistan has deftly taken advantage of its strategic relations with the United States and China to better secure its national interests. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s growing distance from the United States and closer alignment with China has reduced the space for hedging in Pakistan’s foreign policy. However, for Pakistan, hedging remains more important than ever because of rising great power competition between the United States and China, which threatens to bifurcate the world into competing blocks similar to the Cold War.
If Pakistan chooses to maintain an independent and balanced foreign policy, it can signal its intention to Washington that it is receptive to engaging with aspects of the Indo-Pacific framework that further Pakistan’s national interests. As the economic crisis worsens, Pakistan must look beyond CPEC and adopt innovative approaches toward diversifying economic partnerships. Pakistan’s lack of participation in regional economic initiatives—whether it is Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, Trans-Pacific Partnership, or Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF)—is at its own peril. With President Biden laying out a blueprint for economic engagement in the region through IPEF, Pakistan could explore select pillars in the framework rather than ignoring it simply because it has the term “Indo-Pacific” in it.
Should India be worried?
Pakistan’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific is understandably expected to create some unease in New Delhi due to mistrust emanating from a historically complicated relationship. However, India stands to benefit from a working maritime relationship between the United States and Pakistan. It opens a third-party avenue to prevent Pakistan from being engulfed by Beijing’s unipolar influence, particularly in the case of a potential China-Pakistan naval alliance.
India is arguably the foremost champion of an ”inclusive” approach to the Indo-Pacific. New Delhi can prove its commitment to this approach by pragmatically assessing the benefits of Pakistan’s inclusion in the Indo-Pacific dialogue. India’s recent decision to join the Combined Maritime Forces-Bahrain (CMF), which it has historically been hesitant to due to Pakistan Navy’s participation, reflects New Delhi’s willingness to operate on non-traditional security threats at multilateral levels.
Pakistan’s potential participation in IPEF is unlikely to affect economic ties with India adversely. Despite its questionable efficacy, the two countries have previously taken steps towards freer regional trade through South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA). For New Delhi, Pakistan’s participation in dialogues on the Indo-Pacific does not affect any of its foundational pillars or normative vision for the region.
Pakistan’s participation in the Indo-Pacific might, at best, encourage Islamabad to better integrate into a “rules-based order” and, at worst, has no impact.
Image 1: Asif Hassan/AFP via Getty Images
Image 2: Yukie Nishizawa – Pool/Getty Images