Written by Yashfa Ahsan 12:12 pm Current Affairs, International Relations, Pakistan, Published Content, Research Papers

Navigating the Sino-US Rivalry: Pakistan’s Strategic Dilemma

Yashfa Ahsan reflects on Pakistan’s intricate position amid the Sino-US rivalry. The South Asian state’s strategic location demands a multifaceted and balanced approach in its foreign policy and international relations. The author acknowledges the implications of India and the US’s engagement in the Indian Ocean Region for Pakistan’s security and economy. Bearing this in mind, she emphasizes that, with key players like India, Iran, and Afghanistan drawn into this rivalry, Pakistan must establish itself as a reliable economic and strategic partner for the states involved.
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Ms Yashfa Ahsan completed her MPhil in International Relations from the University of Management and Technology, Lahore. With a solid academic background, she holds a BS Honors degree in International Relations from Lahore College for Women University.

Pakistan’s Pragmatic Approach Towards Sino-US Rivalry

Pakistan holds a strategic position that both competitors, the US and China, seek to exploit. China relies on Pakistan to translate its ambitious initiatives into reality, while the US requires Pakistan to counterbalance China’s geostrategic dynamics. Pakistan strives to maintain a balanced position between the two. The Pak-China bond is described as an evergreen and reliable alliance, while Pakistan has also enjoyed a strong relationship with the US. Pakistan finds itself caught in the strategic SIno-US rivalry, facing contradictory scenarios as a result.

Its geographical location plays a significant role, with scholars emphasizing that “Pakistan is situated at the crossroads of the major powers’ geostrategic interests.” The intensifying Sino-US rivalry poses a precarious situation for Pakistan. Its historical involvement in the reconciliation phase of the Sino-US rivalry during President Nixon’s tenure positioned it once again as a middleman in the current context. Subsequently, to prevent negative repercussions and attract foreign direct investment, Pakistan must maintain cordial relations with both China and the US. It can play a role as a bridging state, similar to its past involvement in the 1970s Sino-US reconciliation.

As suggested by scholars, Pakistan could adopt a neutral stance, becoming a melting point for mutual Sino-US benefits. It can promote regional prosperity and enjoy privileges from leading global powers. Former Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, recognized the economic benefits of Pakistan’s relationship with China and acknowledged efforts to improve the Pak-US bond. Premier Khan, during his visit to the 2022 Winter Olympics in China, emphasized the importance of cooperation and collaboration among states, discouraging the induction of another Cold War.

Pakistan aims to engage instrumentally, as it did in the 1970s, and maintains strong bonds with both China and the US (Khan, 2022). Basically, Pakistan intends to navigate the Sino-US rivalry carefully, maintaining diplomatic relations with both sides while leveraging its strategic position for its own national interests and regional stability.

Regional Implications for Pakistan

In an interview, Professor Asghar Ali stated that the complex triangle formed by the US, China, and India has direct implications for Pakistan, given its close alliance with China and adversarial relationship with neighboring India. This has created a perilous situation for Pakistan, requiring careful consideration of its international stance and regional implications. Despite Pakistan’s strong ties with China, the latter is aware of their longstanding and inseparable strategic relations.

Consequently, the US has intensified its relations with India, considering it a key regional strategic partner. Agreements like LEMOA-2016 and BECA-2020 exemplify the Indo-US strategic partnership. These geostrategic calculations pose challenges for Pakistan, impacting its relations with Afghanistan, Russia, and Iran (Ali, 2023).

Unveiling India’s Regional Influence Amidst the Sino-US Rivalry

Scholar Agha Shehryar in a conducted interview opined that India’s importance in the US’s Indo-Pacific policy is underscored by the US National Security Strategy (NSS). The NSS identifies China as a substantial threat and elevates India’s role as a “major defense partner.” As the US shifts its focus from Afghanistan, it directs its attention to the Indo-Pacific region, where India has taken precedence over Pakistan as a key ally. This transition signifies a strategic shift from land-based operations to a greater emphasis on maritime engagements (Khan, 2022).

Eventually, in 2016, the US bestowed the title of “Major Defense Partner” upon India, initiating a closer defense partnership. Subsequent 2+2 dialogues between the US and Indian officials led to the assignment of defense and telecommunication access to India. In 2020, phase two of the dialogue granted India access to geospatial data for enhanced intelligence security monitoring, including the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).

In 2022, a third round of dialogue focused on implementing the US-India Defense Policy Group’s formulation, emphasizing collaboration in areas such as artificial intelligence, airspace, and cybersecurity. The US and India conducted joint military exercises, collaborated in counter-terrorism measures, and planned future conferences and seminars. The US also sought Indian shipyards for maintenance and repairs, while urging Pakistan to take strict measures against terrorism (Khan, 2022).

Sino-US Rivalry’s Implications for Pakistan’s Strategic Choices

Pakistan’s Director of Human Rights Qazi Saleem Ahmed Khan stated that the US’ growing interest in India has added complexity to the politics of the South Asian region and intensified the Sino-US Cold War. The US strategically invests in India to counter China’s influence and keep Pakistan’s guard against India relatively low. This targeted approach by the US directly impacts Pakistan. To navigate these challenges, Pakistan needs to adopt a balanced approach between the US and China, projecting a neutral and moderate image internationally.

By not overtly siding with China, Pakistan can avoid becoming a target for India, which would otherwise leverage the advanced US weapons supplied to them. Additionally, India’s technologically advanced industry would continuously monitor Pakistan, providing an avenue for increased US involvement in Pakistani territory. Any destabilizing statements by Pakistan in the context of the Sino-US rivalry could jeopardize flagship projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

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Moreover, it could ignite terrorism activities within Pakistan and endanger its position in the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). An unbalanced approach would also deter foreign direct investment (FDI) in Pakistan, which is crucial for the country’s economic growth and survival in the contemporary era focused on geo-economics. Pakistan must carefully navigate these implications to avoid negative consequences and maintain stability (Saleem, 2023). Moreover, Pakistan has experienced marginalization in the context of the US-India partnership, with a lack of significant engagement during the Trump administration. However, there have been recent indications of a slight change in dynamics.

Cooperation on counter-terrorism issues has resumed, and the US has assured its support for the preservation of the F-16 aircrafts supplied to Pakistan in the 1980s, which drew criticism from India. In October 2022, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Bajwa visited the US, following the visit of the Indian minister of external affairs. General Bajwa sought to improve the Pakistan-US relationship, as it seemed that Pakistan had joined the anti-US camp after the change in government.

In addition, the recent visit of the US ambassador to Pakistan to the Pakistani side of Kashmir, referring to it as Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), rather than Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) as India does, has raised concerns in India. These developments collectively suggest that President Biden is seeking to rebalance the US-Pakistan relationship, potentially in response to India’s reluctance to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (Mohan, 2022).

Afghanistan: Shaping Implications for Pakistan

Pakistan has historically faced both direct and indirect consequences arising from Afghanistan. The withdrawal of US forces after 20 years of war has created opportunities for China to play a pivotal role in Afghanistan. The collaboration of any developed nation in filling the Afghan vacuum becomes crucial for regional stability. The peace achieved in Afghanistan holds immense importance for Pakistan’s own peace. China’s potential collaboration with the newly formed Taliban government would be highly advantageous for Pakistan. However, it is important to note that China has taken a bold geopolitical gamble by engaging with Afghanistan through initiatives like the New Silk Road.

Chinese Stake in Afghanistan

Professor Asghar Ali said that with Afghanistan’s position in the Mackinderian “Heartland” concept, both China and the US recognize its importance for their respective global strategies. China promptly recognized the power transition in Kabul. During the OIC conference in March 2022, the Chinese foreign minister visited Afghanistan, expressing interest in including it in the BRI flagship project, CPEC. Pakistan, as the starting point of the CPEC, finds itself at the center of these dynamics. This move by China has been seen as a significant shift in the Asian region’s geopolitical landscape, filling the power vacuum left by the US and solidifying China’s leadership role.

The Chinese foreign minister further added that China’s strategic interest in Afghanistan stems from its shared border, economic investments, and the potential overland path to the Indian Ocean. China has already heavily invested in various projects in Afghanistan, such as the Amu Darya Basin Oil Project and the Aynak Copper Mine Project. As per the reports of Defense News, China has been granted the opportunity to utilize the valuable rare-earth metals in Afghanistan, estimated to be worth over $3 trillion (Ali 2023).

Decoding the Iran Factor

As per the articles of the Middle East Institute, the ongoing discussions surrounding a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement between Iran and China since March 2021 are coming to fruition. This agreement encompasses collaboration in security, trade, culture, cyber security, and politics. Given the shared hostility between Iran, China, and the US, security and military considerations are an integral part of this pact. The 25-year strategic partnership between China and Iran presents a favorable opportunity for Pakistan to address the existing atmosphere of mutual mistrust and foster enhanced cooperation. Furthermore, by jointly addressing regional challenges, Pakistan can forge a robust strategic alliance with regional members, thereby contributing to the reduction of US hegemony in the South Asian region (Vaisi, 2022).

Economic Repercussions for Pakistan

As quoted in the updated reports of the US Office of Trade Representatives, it has been blatantly stated that till 2019, specifically from 2012 to 2017, the economic ties between the US and Pakistan experienced a decline, with economic assistance dropping to $650 million. Meanwhile, the bond between Pakistan and China grew stronger, as both countries collaborated on various bilateral and multilateral projects and supported each other on international platforms. The initiation of the CPEC also took place during this time.

Additionally, there was a significant decrease of 13% in remittances during this period. However, it is noteworthy that private investments from the US in Pakistan amounted to $823 million, while Chinese investments were approximately $2.3 million, indicating a notable disparity that was expected to widen with the implementation of CPEC (Representatives, 2020). In a published work by Alan Kronstadt, it was emphasized that China serves as Pakistan’s primary trading partner, accounting for a significant share of both its exports and imports, while the United States holds the position of Pakistan’s main export partner.

While there has been a decline in overall foreign investment in Pakistan, there has been a significant increase in trade with the US, amounting to $6.8 billion. However, security concerns and trade barriers limit US stakeholders from investing further in Pakistan. Despite economic assistance from countries like UAE, China, and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan had to seek a $6 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2019, adding to its existing debt of $5.8 billion owed to the organization.

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Pakistan has sought assistance from the IMF multiple times in the past three decades. Since 2007, security aid and economic assistance from the US Congress have been suspended, with stricter conditions imposed in 2011. However, with the administration of President Biden, there has been a provision of $89 million in assistance to Pakistan, focusing on state development, the economy, and the pandemic response (Kronstadt, 2021).

In the recent past, the challenging dynamics of Pakistan’s relationship with China have been highlighted. It is observed that Pakistan faced difficulties in terms of lending and trading with China. For instance, a power agreement with China in 2020 led to a renegotiation attempt by Pakistan, apart from refuting it, China even insisted on a repayment of $1.4 billion to Chinese power stakeholders. This highlights Pakistan’s blind trust in China as its ally. It is strongly advised that Pakistan stop pursuing its motives with China as a substitute for the US. Here, China’s approach can be regarded as mercantilist in terms of economy and trade, affecting both opponents and supporters alike (Rafiq, 2022).

According to the updated reports from the US Office of Trade Representatives, Pakistan holds the position of the 56th major goods trading partner of the US, with an estimated trade value of $6.6 billion in 2019. The trade deficit between the two countries stood at $1.3 billion at that time. The reports also highlight the creation of around ten thousand job opportunities in Pakistan through US exports in 2015. The ratio of US exports to Pakistan reached approximately $2.6 billion by 2019, showing a 7.2% deficit from 2018. However, this ratio has witnessed a significant increase of 63.7% since 2009. Key export items from the US to Pakistan include cotton, steel, iron, mineral fuels, machinery, and soybeans.

Pakistan is also recognized as the 24th largest agricultural exporter, while being the 55th largest goods import market (worth $3.9 billion in 2019) for the US. Agricultural products from the US to Pakistan were valued at $125 million in 2019. The data indicates a 48.6% increase in the US-Pakistan trade deficit from 2018 to 2019. However, it also shows a notable rise of 73% in American FDI in Pakistan since 2018, while Pakistan’s FDI in the US stock share market experienced a decline of 7.8% from 2018 to 2019 (Representatives, 2020).

Likewise, as published by the US Department of State, the US has significantly increased its investments in Pakistan over the past 20 years. In 2022, Pakistan was recognized by the IMF as the 44th largest economic market, despite being the 5th most populous country. Notably, there has been a 50% rise in FDI from the US to Pakistan, marking it the highest increase in a decade. This increased involvement demonstrates the US’ willingness to strengthen its relationship with Pakistan through active participation from various departments such as the State Department, the Commerce Department, and the International Development Finance Corporation.

This implies that the US aims to collaborate with Pakistan to improve its financial climate, strengthen and regulate its economy, implement fair taxation practices, and protect intellectual property rights. Therefore, with the global political landscape increasingly focusing on geo-economics rather than geo-politics, there has been a fundamental shift in the overall structure.

Pakistan’s former national security advisor, Dr. Moeed Yusuf, emphasized the significance of this shift, stating that the government’s strategies would have a positive impact on every Pakistani citizen in the coming years. In his discussions with a US delegation in Islamabad, he highlighted Pakistan’s efforts to position itself as a key player in the international geo-economic arena through various partnerships and projects under the framework of an economic security model. He further emphasized that the business activities of US-owned companies in Pakistan are mutually beneficial, serving the interests of both countries.

In light of Pakistan’s shift towards a geo-economic foreign policy, the country has shown a willingness to balance its economic partnerships with various states, including its major export partner, the US. Rather than taking sides, Pakistan has strived to maintain equilibrium among all parties involved. Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Masood Khan, emphasized the importance of fostering strong economic ties between the US and Pakistan, highlighting the significance of professional networks in driving their economic relations, during his address to the participants of the National Management Course in Washington 2022 (Yusuf, 2021). 

“The US South Asian Affairs Report,” as highlighted by The India Times, emphasizes that despite numerous challenges and a complex relationship, the US recognizes the strategic importance of Pakistan. Being a gateway to key regions and having close proximity to Russia, Afghanistan, and China, Pakistan holds significant geopolitical significance. The report was compiled by a team of retired US ambassadors, the former secretary of state for South Asian affairs, senior diplomats to Pakistan, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, and South Asian experts (Times, 2022).

Naval Consequences for Pakistan

The US and China are engaged in a struggle for dominance in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which has significant implications for Pakistan. China, aiming to establish its influence and secure its presence in the IOR, has established bases in Djibouti and gained control over the strategic Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. The US, already having bases in the IOR, is concerned about China’s growing influence. This Sino-US rivalry in the region has maritime implications for Pakistan.

Pakistan, while not being a member state of the  Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), maintains friendly relations with littoral countries of the IOR and promotes peace in the region. However, the rivalry between the US and China, along with India’s involvement, has made Pakistan indirectly part of this dynamic. China and Pakistan collaborate closely on initiatives like the BRI and the IOR, which raises concerns for the US and India. China’s presence and support in the IOR, particularly through the Gwadar Port (Balochistan), have been beneficial for Pakistan (Hassan, 2019).

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On the other hand, Pakistan’s collaboration with China and other international actors in maritime affairs is driven by its commitment to fulfill its global maritime responsibilities. Pakistan has developed infrastructure along its Makran coast and actively participates in international initiatives like the Combined Task Force 150 (CTF 150). The country’s maritime strategy, known as the “Maritime Doctrine of Pakistan,” emphasizes the need for a capable and efficient navy that can effectively safeguard national maritime security, deter threats, and project influence regionally and internationally (Hassan, 2019).

Subsequently, Mozzam Khan in his published research work revealed that the Pak-China security bond is basically driven by China’s desire for increased control in IOR. The US sees this as part of China’s grand strategy to monitor US warships in the Hormuz area. The US has expressed concerns about the construction of the Gwadar Port, stating that it disrupts the maritime balance in the region. Propaganda has been spread to create a sense of insecurity in Balochistan and discourage international investors in Gwadar.

Pakistan is caught between the competing interests of China and the US, facing ongoing maritime threats and a constant expansion of the US-aligned India in the IOR. The Gwadar Port has become a contentious point in the Sino-US maritime rivalry, with Pakistan facing attacks on Chinese laborers and doubts about the security of the BRI’s flagship project. Pakistan believes that regional and global opponents are behind these attacks. China has demanded foolproof security measures before resuming construction on the Neelum-Jhelum power plant. In the regional context, the Chabahar Port of Iran was constructed as a reaction which has eventually strained Pakistan’s relationship with India and Iran. The US views these initiatives by China as part of its grand strategy to exert control over IOR (Khan, 2016).

Moreover, the AUKUS and QUAD agreements have significant implications for Pakistan. The bolstering of India’s naval capabilities through these alliances poses a direct threat to Pakistan and adds further strain to its struggling economy. This development disrupts the balance of power in the South Asian region. The US-supported Indian attempts to establish hegemony in the IOR, not only to counter China but also Pakistan, could escalate tensions and potentially lead to conflicts between India and China. This situation puts projects like BRI and CPEC at risk and forces Pakistan to align itself with China in the event of an Indo-China conflict. Such a scenario would have severe economic and security implications for Pakistan, and it could face global sanctions for supporting China if the Sino-US rivalry intensifies in the region (Baqai, 2022).


In conclusion, Pakistan finds itself at a critical juncture in navigating its relationships with China and the United States. While considering regional, naval, and implications for the economy, it is essential for Pakistan to strike a balance and avoid overdependence. It should carefully assess the implications of China’s mercantilist approach and ensure that its economic partnerships serve the interests of all parties involved. Pakistan must not neglect the complex dynamics arising from the Sino-US rivalry in the Indian Ocean Region. It should continue actively participating in international maritime initiatives, while also taking steps to address concerns and maintain open lines of communication with the US and India.

A way forward for Pakistan lies in adopting a balanced approach that safeguards its national interests, promotes regional stability, and fosters mutually beneficial relationships. This can be achieved through continued engagement with both China and the US, exploring avenues for economic diversification, and strengthening diplomatic efforts to address security concerns. Furthermore, Pakistan should actively pursue dialogue and cooperation with regional stakeholders, including Iran and other countries, to foster stability and collaborative solutions in the region. By adopting a nuanced and balanced strategy, Pakistan can establish itself as a trustworthy actor in its relationships with both the US and China. By pursuing such a strategy, Pakistan can safeguard its long-term security and economic prosperity.


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