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Creating Connections

Former Pakistani official Dr Moeed Yusuf on how his country is once again turning its focus to easing tensions between China and the US

By Cao Ran Updated Jun.1

Dr Moeed Yusuf, former National Security Adviser of Pakistan, speaks at a sub-forum on global geopolitics during the 2023 Boao Forum for Asia, Hainan Province, March 29 (Photo by VCG)

Pakistan and China maintain an all-weather strategic cooperative partnership. In 2004, Pakistan was designated a Major Non-NATO Ally of the US under the George W Bush administration. However, some US lawmakers have been working on a bill to revoke this status over the past two years.  

Amid increasing competition and tension between China and the US, how will Pakistan contribute to global peace? In an interview with NewsChina on March 29 during the Boao Forum for Asia in South China’s Hainan Province, Dr Moeed Yusuf, former National Security Adviser of Pakistan, emphasized that Pakistan must avoid becoming a “proxy battlefield for great power competition.”  

Dr Yusuf served as the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on National Security Division and Strategic Policy Planning since December 2019. He holds a master’s in international relations and PhD in political science from Boston University. In 2014, he served as the Director for South Asia Programs of the US Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan institute founded by the US Congress. 

NewsChina: Pakistan was absent from this year’s Democracy Summit hosted by the US. While you were National Security Advisor, Pakistan also chose not to attend the 2022 summit. Why? 
MY: Participation in the summit should not be seen as a signal from Pakistan. It does not mean who we are for or against. Pakistan has always continued to conduct bilateral dialogues with the US on related issues, but we do not want to fall into the situation of who to support or oppose at a certain time.  

Pakistan has always made decisions on the merits of specific events. If we think there is any important international cooperation that Pakistan needs to participate in, we will participate. But every country pays attention to whether any activity would lead to more cooperation, or create more faction politics. There were certain commitments being asked of countries last time. That was an important consideration. The current Pakistan administration I believe also decided not to attend the summit this time.  

NC: Without participating in faction politics, how will Pakistan maintain its special partnership with China and the US?  

MY: The competition between China and the US is intensifying, which worries me very much. We are a special partner and friend of China, and our two countries are geographically connected. At the same time, we have been an ally of the US on the frontline of security for decades. Pakistan’s economy depends on China, the US and Europe at the same time. Most of our imports come from China and most of our exports go west.  

So, once a conflict breaks out between major powers, Pakistan will not gain anything, and we will become a proxy battlefield for this competition. Many countries will face this problem, but Pakistan is already facing this policy challenge today more than any other country.  

Let’s take a lesson from history. Any conflict around us will work against us. Pakistan became a participant in the war in Afghanistan as a US ally, and as a result, all the aftermath of this conflict occurred in Pakistan. Since the 9/11 attack, our economy has lost more than US$150 billion, and more than 80,000 people have been killed or injured. At the same time, we also have a glorious history of building bridges for Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China in 1971. So, I think if Pakistan could, it should help de-escalate the great power confrontation in the region and help ease the tension between China and the US instead of being part of the conflict.  

My solution framework is to include China, the US and the rest of the world in Pakistan’s connectivity. Any country that wants to invest in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) can participate. I hope that China and the US can invest in the same projects. For example, in the energy field, there can be a combination of Western technology, Chinese investment and Pakistani cooperation and resources. It has already happened in the past.  

In addition, even if geopolitical confrontation intensifies, I also hope that China, the US and other countries can cooperate to deal with common challenges faced by humankind such as climate change. Pakistan is a country with very low carbon emissions, but it is also one of the 10 most vulnerable countries bearing the brunt of climate change. In 2022, we had major floods with economic losses exceeding US$30 billion. Therefore, I hope there will be a global mechanism that can continue to cooperate on issues such as climate change, water resources, economy and trade, and give countries like Pakistan the support they deserve.  

In general, I have advocated an interdependent global economic model. This will not be easy to achieve, but Pakistan does not have any other viable options. Waiting for the situation to deteriorate, or even eventually being asked to choose sides, is not good for Pakistan, China or the US.  

NC: How did your American counterparts react to this idea? 

MY: Pakistan has active dialogues with both China and the US, of course. The changes in Sino-US relations are “too new” for everyone. The US is still trying to judge the nature and essence of Sino-US relations and how to compete. China is also trying to find a balance. I don’t think anyone wants a major conflict after the Ukraine crisis. Everyone sees that military confrontation is terrible, but we are now entering into confrontations in technology, economic and trade and disinformation.  

This is a process of finding balance. It is important for a country like Pakistan that when China brings billions of dollars in investment, other countries cannot tell us “you are not entitled to these investments.” We need these investments, and I want everyone to invest.  

NC: Previously, Pakistan allied with the US due to India’s ties with the Soviet Union and the war in Afghanistan. Now with Afghanistan no longer a US core strategic issue and the improved US-India relationship, the US seeks regional partnerships like AUKUS and QUAD to counter China. How will Pakistan navigate its role in the Asia-Pacific?  

MY: What you mentioned is a big challenge facing Pakistan. Pakistan has been building partnerships with too much focus on trust, friendship and personal relationships, and less on what commercial value we can provide to the world. Over the past few decades, Pakistan’s value to the US and the Western world has mainly been security. Whenever there is conflict and confrontation in the region, Pakistan is needed. However, I feel we did not pay enough attention to our own economic value and the value of geoeconomics based on our important geographical location in the region.  

Pakistan cannot continue to rely on [its] security relevance alone. Even the Western world doesn’t want a conflict between India and Pakistan. Pakistan, as we have just discussed, cannot afford to wait for a conflict to arise. We need to contribute another kind of positive value to the world.  

For a country to develop, the first thing it needs is a vision. No country knows this better than China. In the past, the world thought China was a poor country, but now China is a leader of the global economy. This is China’s achievement. Now, we see that the Chinese government has put forward multiple visions for China and for the security and development of the world.  

In early 2022, Pakistan launched its first national security policy. The main role of this document is to provide a clear vision for Pakistan’s conception of security and the future direction of Pakistan. The policy determined that the core of Pakistan’s national security is economic security. We need to focus on strengthening our economic resilience so that we have the resources and capacity to address other security challenges.  

Once we know where we want to go, we can always find a way to get there. First, Pakistan must become a regional connectivity hub. At this point, China’s special relationship with Pakistan is crucial, and the CPEC is a successful example. For Pakistan, this provides energy, strengthens infrastructure, and can improve agriculture and industry. China also gains new connections to the rest of the world.  

Similarly, Pakistan has also worked to strengthen connectivity with Central Asian countries, including building energy channels between Central Asia and Pakistan through Afghanistan. I am particularly excited by China’s success in promoting diplomatic rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran neighbors Pakistan, yet it is isolated. We hope that conflict in the Middle East will subside and Iran can open up to the outside world, including the West, so that countries like Pakistan can benefit economically and achieve more trade exchanges.  

In short, as I see it, the key path for Pakistan is to strengthen our economic security, improve our domestic environment, and build a regional trade and transportation hub. I see that China is moving toward the high end of the region’s value chain, which means that some low-end industrial investment will leave China. Can these companies come to Pakistan? Pakistan has a unique location, a huge workforce, and millions of English speakers. We should make good use of these advantages. I know China wants to help Pakistan do this again. The West also wants to continue investing in Pakistan if the environment is right.