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Elected US President Joe Biden to Play a Balancing Act?

Joe Biden is all set to take charge as the 46th American President on January 20, 2021, in what is to the world now known as the infamous Capitol Hill, Washington DC. Democrats in the US are rejoicing the Biden’s Trump, delighted over the ousting of Trump and the closure of what they term as one of the most embarrassing and painful episodes of American political history. Having said that, the rest of the world is eyeing the event differently whilst each country is calculating its own equation with the new team in the White House. How geopolitics and geo-economics unfold with the incoming Joe Biden is yet to be seen.

In this backdrop, Islamabad is also observing the situation closely. Biden knows Pakistan very well and has traveled to the country several times as Vice President. He was one of the principal architects, along with Senator John Kerry of the Kerry-Lugar Berman Act of 2009 that paved the way for the US to provide annual civilian assistance of $1.5 billion to Pakistan between 2010 and 2014. Biden also considers Islamabad as a significant player in the region.

For now, it seems that the history of fluctuating bilateral relations will face another watershed moment under the Joe Biden administration. His rise to power is unlikely to drastically change the issue-specific and transactional nature of the relationship between the two nations However; it will most probably present Pakistan with opportunities to strengthen its strategic and economic ties with Washington. In particular, Washington cannot ignore Islamabad, when it is taking an exit from Kabul. Leaving Afghanistan also allows the White House the chance to redefine its interests in the region.

First of all, it is expected that human rights violations in Indian and particularly within the Indian administrated Kashmir (IAK) would get more attention in the American power corridors. Kamala Harris, the vice president-elect of the United States, is on record to have highlighted Indian oppression of Kashmiris and the treatment meted out to Indian minorities within the Union.

This would augment Pakistan’s efforts in highlighting Indian atrocities in Kashmir and allegedly mishandling of minorities across the country. Though, Biden in parallel will continue to pressure Pakistan to make improvements in the human rights domain, along with the expectation of further action from Pakistan against armed groups based within its borders, targeting India.

Not to forget, America’s desire to blunt China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative and contain its rise as a global power means its strategic and geopolitical interests in the Indo-Pacific region will remain more aligned with India than Pakistan. Hence, Biden will certainly keep supporting India against China in the region, but unlike Trump, he is also likely to take steps for restoring Washington’s role as a strategic balancer between Islamabad and New Delhi. Additionally, realms of balancing act within South Asia, climate change, international trade, and adopting a more subtle approach to mitigate the strategic damage control, which was made essential by Trump’s informal leadership style, would remain as the primary focus of the Islamabad-Washington equation.

For Pakistan vis-à-vis the US, three areas remain crucial. First, the Afghan Peace Process and converging of interests between Washington and Islamabad. Second, the need for an appropriate balance between US-Pakistan and US-India relations. Thirdly, Pakistan’s position on the Abraham Accord in the overall context of the Middle East and the Islamic world.

The current momentum of the Afghan peace process is already witnessing some so-called spoilers in the Afghan government and the Indian strategic community, who feel that the trajectory of US policy in Afghanistan will leave very little room for the Doval boys to keep the Pak-Afghan region boiling.

Pakistan’s next important area of converging interest with Biden’s team will be the new Middle East being shaped by the Abraham Accord. Pakistan enjoys a special place in the Middle East across the great divide of the Persian Gulf and has maintained a balanced policy in the region, so far. It would likely to continue with a principled but passive stance over the issue.

In this context, Islamabad would like for a balance in its relations with the US and that of the US with India; while leveraging its position in Afghanistan for a peaceful closure of the decade’s long conflict, besides providing Washington a comfortable exit. Islamabad would also be playing its entire card to avoid any conflict within Afghanistan and also in the region, post troops withdrawal.

Nonetheless, one of the most challenging areas being faced by Islamabad is the US-India strategic partnership and collaboration in the Indo-Pacific region. Moreover, Islamabad-Beijing friendship and strategic cooperation vis-à-vis Indo Pacific alliance will limit Pakistan’s space, especially if other countries in the West and South East Asia start band-waging with the Quad – US, India, Australia, and Japan. This could be the reason for Pakistan recently expanding its diplomatic outreach to maximize its options when it comes to dealing with global affairs.

In a crux, Islamabad has substantial leverage to cooperate with Biden’s team, especially in areas of convergence. Whereas, Pakistan has to engage with caution given Biden understands Pakistan and South Asian affairs. With the induction of Pakistani and Kashmiri origin people in his team, Pakistan will have to become proactive and needs to analyze the potential opportunities/scenarios for bilateral cooperation. For which Pakistan needs to galvanize its intellectual community and Pakistani diaspora in the US to maintain a balanced policy.

About the author

Saddam Hussein

The author Saddam Hussein is a Research Economist at Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), Islamabad. He graduated from the School of Economics, Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) and also holds Master of Philosophy degree in Public Policy from PIDE. Hussein writes regularly for national and international print media, frequently appears on TV for expert analysis and conducts training workshops on a wide range of thematic area.