Last Tuesday when US President Donald Trump accused and warned Pakistan of supporting cross-border terrorism the threats did not unheard in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and even in Beijing. Trump said Pakistan was protecting and arming the very same terrorists that Washington had been fighting for more than a decade. The Trump administration has already put on hold billions of dollars of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) meant for Pakistan and threatened to cut off more, even going so far as threatening to label Pakistan as a terrorist state. Even going as far as to say that Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally would be at risk. To add added concern to Pakistan Trump and his aides have vaguely called upon India to do more in Afghanistan.
While it is true that Islamabad has been harboring jihadists on its soil since the 1980s this abrupt change in stance by the US still has a lot to look forward to see how serious the threats this time are. President Bush threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the Stone Age” if it did not comply with US demands in the War on Terror but took negligible steps to curtail terrorist acts emanating from Pakistan. It is imperative to see in this regard how Pakistan reacts to the current allegations.
As we have seen in the past that whenever the US threatened to cut off Pakistan it reacted by closing down NATO supply routes to Afghanistan or increasing costs for the convoys to pass through its territory. They might also increase cross-border terrorist acts on NATO and Afghan forces using the Haqqani network and other Taliban proxies which American security analysts have described as a “veritable arm of the ISI”. Pakistan would also get more close with Beijing to circumvent dependence on US aid. Beijing has already come in defense of its friend by saying that Pakistan itself has been a victim of terrorism for a long time and that its sacrifices in the fight against terrorism must be respected and recognized. The same sentiment has been echoed by the generals in Rawalpindi that held a four hour National Security Council meeting with the Prime Minister.
China has high stakes both in Afghanistan and Pakistan where it has invested a lot. In Afghanistan China has a lot of investment in mining and other sectors and any increased Indian or US influence would put their investments at risk. In Pakistan China had invested in infrastructure development, particularly the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Its stake in Pakistan’s restive province of Baluchistan where it has developed the Gwadar port has long faced security challenges from insurgent groups that allegedly are supported by Indian intelligence services.
When the US military carried out a drone strike in Baluchistan in 2016 that killed a high ranking Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor the Pakistani government warned Washington that Baluchistan was off limits as it fell within the so called “settled areas” of Pakistan and that the US limit drone strikes to Pakistan’s tribal regions exclusively. This was the first time a drone strike was carried out so deep inside Pakistan. If Trump makes good on his threats then Beijing and Islamabad would fear that Pakistan’s sovereignty and Chinese investments both might be at risk or become legitimate targets like the operation to take out Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad showed.
Also what scares Islamabad is that if India’s influence grows in Afghanistan then it would lose its “strategic depth” in Afghanistan that is essential for its survival. It fears encirclement by India and such apprehension by a country armed with nuclear weapons and a history of supporting terrorists and suspect to military rule does not bode well for regional security. This might also push Pakistan closer to Iran which does not have such good relations with the US and the Trump administration is especially hawkish regarding Iran. This Tehran-Islamabad-Beijing axis if strengthened would greatly undermine US efforts in Afghanistan as well as jeopardize India’s security and investments in the region.