One steady tenor in Pakistan’s foreign policy has been its fraternal relations with the Gulf, guided by both economic and social self-interest. This relationship is now set to be further consolidated with China’s bid to secure a land route to the Arabian Sea through Pakistan. But a further deepening of ties between Islamabad and Beijing risks damaging Pakistan’s relationship with the U.S., which is acting against China in the Pacific. A recently unearthed cache of leaked documents, reported by The Washington Post, has shown that Pakistan is aware of this, with a memo warning policymakers “not to annoy China to maintain links with the United States.” In one of the leaked memos, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar goes further by saying Islamabad can “no longer try to maintain a middle-ground between China and the United States.”
A second memo, discussing a U.N. resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, cites one of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s aides advising against voting in its favor as this could “jeopardize” potential trade and energy deals with Moscow. All signs point to a cooling of ties with Washington in favor of Beijing, which could spell trouble for Pakistan’s exports to the U.S., particularly in the textiles sector. The geopolitical shifts propelled by China’s advancing of ties with Gulf states, thus, requires Pakistan to tread carefully. This has already been indicated by Sharif, who cited the U.S., China, E.U., GCC member states, India, Russia, Iran, Turkiye and Afghanistan as states that remained the most important for Pakistan, suggesting authorities will strive to remain neutral when it comes to direct foreign policy clashes taking place in the region.
However, Pakistan’s geographic positioning ensures that China’s advances in the Gulf will have an impact on its foreign policy. For all the trade between the U.S. and Pakistan, China remains its foremost investor in infrastructure and energy projects. Meanwhile, the Gulf fulfils its energy needs, hosts a large diaspora and has longstanding security co-operation deals. Key to profiting off these developments in neutrality and a focus on self-interest; Pakistan cannot afford to become part of any overtly formed confrontational policies by states involved in contests globally.