Love Triangle

It's been an otherwise quiet week here, but I just came across this article at the BBC.  With all of the dust that the killing of bin Laden stirred up between the US and Pakistan it's easy to forget the bigger picture.  Specifically, what openings (if any) does the increased tension between the US and Pakistan create for other states in the region?  

The article specifically mentions that China may be able to use this opportunity to increase its foreign investment in Pakistan.  First, I guess it's not immediately clear to me why Pakistani–US relations have to fray in order for China to increase its investment.  I suspect the overwhelming majority of US aid to Pakistan is directed at enhancing Pakistan's military and intelligence capabilities.  On the other hand, China's investment seems to be infrastructural as well as military.  Indeed, the BBC article indicates that China is Pakistan's largest supplier of arms, but does the US necessarily see this relationship as a competitive one?  In the context of the last decade or so, Chinese aid to Pakistan could certainly be seen as supplementing US efforts at bolstering the strength of Pakistan's central government.  

The US has a very obvious agenda with respect to Pakistan, and I'm not so naive as to believe that there aren't concerns over rival sources of external influence making it more difficult for the US to acheive its goals.  That said, I'm not so sure that China's goals might not be very similar.  Sure, the Chinese are probably trying to increase their own regional power bloc, and cozying up to Pakistan is a natural way to increase Chinese power vis-a-vis India, but the Chinese government is probably no more eager to see the government in Pakistan collapse than the US government is.  In the short term, such a collapse would potentially create some serious problems for the Chinese in securing their western borders.  Any such collapse could very well devolve into a protracted conflict that could easily spill over into China's territory.  In the long term, this sort of collapse puts a nuclear powered state on China's borders into some potentially very unfriendly hands.   

Is this a place where there is some potential for the US to scale back on its commitments with less cost than we might initially think?  I think the immediate reaction is to view the situation in terms of dyadic relations between the US and Pakistan.  But viewed in the broader regional context, is it possible that the US is (sort of) indirectly helping China shirk what would otherwise be a greater burden to their own government but acting as if the burden is all ours?  I know many pundits, politicians, and policy wonks (just one example here) have warned against cutting aid to Pakistan as it would have disastrous effects, but could it be that cutting aid to Pakistan would not really harm the US' interests in the region that much?  Indeed, could it be possible that US strategic interests are actually enhanced by such a move, as it may prompt the Chinese to take a greater share of the burden for ensuring that Pakistan remains stable, thus occupying more of their resources and attention?

I'm not a regional expert, so it's certainly possible that I'm missing something.  Thoughts? 

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

4 Replies to “Love Triangle”

  1. Interesting point. I confess, I had been assuming that sponsorship by the US and China were incompatible because they would ask for different, mutually exclusive, policy concessions in return. But I think you’re right that one of the main things either state would hope to accomplish is stabilizing Pakistan. Viewed in that light, it does seem possible that China is free-riding on the US’s aid provision, and the US could free-ride on China’s if the US rolled back aid to Pakistan.
    Of course, the US would need to withdraw from Afghanistan before that would be relevant. Because one of the other things the US is buying with its aid is maintenance of supply routes. And we know the US has threatened to rollback aid a few times recently, but whenever they do the Pakistanis just ask how the US feels about losing its supply routes to Afghanistan, and then the US keeps right on giving…

  2. I think you’re right about the issue of US troops essentially limiting the options that we can seriously consider at this point. It really makes you wonder just how much policymakers realize that deploying military forces can limit their subsequent choices. It’s also funny how completely skewed the distribution of military power is in the world, and yet the US is still quite constrained by the needs or actions of smaller states.

  3. Good point. But I think the reason that’s so striking to most people is we assume that relative position in the global system is what matter, since Waltz told us so. But power projection is costly, and the US can’t be everywhere. So in a way, it’s not all that surprising that the US has to be cognizant of the needs or actions of local actors when pursuing objectives that are peripheral to its survival, territorial integrity, etc.
    I think the more puzzling thing is why the US is still expending vast amounts of resources in this region, long after any credible argument that it is necessary in order to prevent another 9/11 was tenable.
    Of course, as I’ve been arguing for some time on my blog, there are domestic politics-based arguments that could plausibly account for that. But I’m not sure how well any state-centric approach can.

  4. I think you’re right–I spent some time in comps writing about IR notions of power and how they seem poorly suited for capturing the power dynamics in a conflict like Afghanistan, or even Iraq. Not only is power projection costly as you say, but the power of other non-state actors, such as the Taliban, can be greatly augmented by lower-level considerations like military tactics or even the terrain on which they fight. And shy of conquering Pakistan and turning into some kind of vassal state, there really isn’t much we can do but negotiate with them to get what we need.
    I think it’s entirely possible that a significant amount of our involvement in the region stems from this bias toward engaging in behavior that can be seen, that has some sort of tangible aspect to it. The public doesn’t seem to be terribly receptive to approaches that are less observable, or whose cause/effect dynamics are counterintuitive or indirect.

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