More often than not, the start of the new year is marked with a sense of hope and renewal, a chance to learn from the previous year’s trials and transgressions, a chance of getting things right the next time around. However, if the world has learned anything during the last year that the Trump Administration has been in power, it is that hope, renewal, and learning from past mistakes seem to be far from the top of the administration’s New Year’s resolution list.
Instead, Trump rang in the new year with one his most consistent habits; ranting and creating policies in 140 characters or less via Twitter. The tweet, which Pakistan was the direct focus of, decried that the nation was not doing enough to support the war on terrorism. Trump took it a step further with accusations that Pakistan has harbored terrorists which the United States and international community at large have actively been hunting. He threatened to — and later followed through via Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, to withhold $255 million in aid to Pakistan.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s tweet received immediate backlash, resulting in Pakistan’s Foreign Office summoning U.S. Ambassador David Hale to explain Trump’s comments accusing Pakistan of “lies and deceit.” However, while the U.S. and Pakistan may not be pleased with one another, there is one player that continues to cash in on Trump’s regular foreign policy faux pas decisions; China.
China, a neighbor of Pakistan and tactical ally, has shown signs that it intends to strategically swoop in and exploit the newly enlarged rift that the United States has created. Just several hours after Trump’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, announced the plan to withhold aid, China released a statement jumping to the defense of its ally, stating that “Pakistan has made enormous efforts and sacrifice for the fight against terrorism and has made very outstanding contribution to the global cause of counter terrorism. China and Pakistan are all-weather partners. We stand ready to promote and deepen our all-round cooperation so as to bring benefits to the two sides.”
24 hours after Trump’s comments, Pakistan’s central bank responded by announcing it would be foregoing the use of the U.S. dollar when engaging in bilateral trade and investment projects with China, and would begin using the Chinese yuan. China in turn announced it would expedite a massive multibillion dollar infrastructure project it has planned with Pakistan which is part of its One Belt One Road Initiative.
China’s defense and support of Pakistan undoubtedly comes from a place of geopolitical strategy on both a regional and global level. Unlike the U.S., China does not prescribe to, nor require or enforce many of the morals and ideologies that the West does when engaging with developing countries. China’s historic policy of non-interference allows it to remain significantly less hindered.
Beijing and Islamabad have joined forces to create the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Despite its goal of strengthening ties between the two via energy, highway, and port infrastructure projects, bringing economic prosperity and stability to the country, China has already taken a few hits quite literally, realizing that some of the difficulties that the United States has experienced in dealing with Pakistan are not exclusive to that relationship.
In 2016 there were several incidents in which extremist groups attack the sites of CPEC projects, including one in September where several Chinese engineers were killed in an attack launched by Baloch Rebels. Pakistan and its police forces have pledged to do all they can to ensure the protection of these sites as well as Chinese workers. However, as the depth and size of projects grow over the years, it will prove difficult for a country with as much domestic instability as Pakistan to meet such security demands. This is where China may be required to step in and expend more resources to protect its investments and people.
CPEC’s success and growth also depends heavily on the success and stability of Pakistani politics. Throughout its history Pakistan has rotated between military and civilian leaders, with the 2013 election being the first time that a civilian government was able to last and serve out its entire term. Should the political structure not remain stable or collapse, China could find its projects regularly delayed or halted all together.
Ultimately, Pakistan has proven to be a tricky partner to engage with. If nothing is done to salvage the relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, the U.S. could lose a potentially valuable anti-terrorism partner in the region, while creating a potentially lucrative opportunity for China to not only advance its own national interest but to continue to expand its sphere of influence. In order to attain success in maximizing this opportunity, China must closely exam and learn from U.S.-Pakistan relations as well as Pakistan’s domestic shortcomings, and prepare ways to minimize the effect these problems could have on investments.