How will Pakistan’s new government manage the US-China rivalry?

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif will need to play a delicate balancing game to secure desperately needed economic support from both powers amid their deepening strategic rivalry.

Pakistan's former Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif gestures during a press conference regarding parliamentary elections, in Lahore, Pakistan, Tuesday, Feb. 13
Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif gestures during a press conference, in Lahore, Pakistan, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024 [AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary]

On March 3, Pakistan’s National Assembly elected Shehbaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) as prime minister for a second time, and tasked him with forming a new coalition government, following one of the most controversial elections in the country’s history.

The February 8 election was marred by allegations of large-scale rigging and military influence as well as delayed results. Such allegations and irregularities surrounding national votes are not unusual in Pakistan’s chequered democratic history, but this election cycle marked a new low as almost all political parties, albeit to different degrees, have raised rigging allegations, calling into question the legitimacy of the entire election process.

Going forward, the new government is going to face immense political pressure at home. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-I-Insaf (PTI) party, which was forced to field its candidates as independents after losing its election symbol, had emerged as the largest group in the National Assembly with 93 seats and is expected to continue agitating in parliament as well as the streets. The ruling PMLN’s primary coalition partner, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), meanwhile, made the calculated decision to abstain from taking a position within the government, leaving Prime Minister Sharif and his party solely accountable for the many challenges looming on the horizon.

With numerous domestic issues, including a faltering economy, unprecedented inflation and internal security, high on the agenda, the new government will be likely have no time to waste on the foreign policy front. 

Of various urgent and important foreign policy challenges, the most significant and consequential challenge the new Sharif government will face is going to be maintaining Pakistan’s strategic autonomy, and balancing relations with the United States and China amid their escalating rivalry.

In his inaugural speech in the parliament, Sharif pledged that the country will not be part of any great game, implying that Pakistan will not align exclusively with either the US or China in their ongoing friction. Nonetheless, it is easier said than done, as the manoeuvring space for balancing relations with both global powers is fast shrinking.

The signs of troubled times were visible for quite some time, especially with consistently growing US criticism of Chinese investment projects in Pakistan under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The tensions stemming from efforts to strike a balance between relations with the US and China had reached a peak last year when Pakistan opted out of the virtual Democracy Summit co-hosted by US President Joe Biden after participating in the International Forum on Democracy in Beijing just a week earlier.

At the moment, the bilateral relationship between Pakistan and the US is on a downward spiral. The amount of American military and economic support to Pakistan is rapidly declining, especially since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Regardless of the shallow and seemingly transactional nature of bilateral relations, however, the US remains the largest export market for Pakistani goods. As such, the direction of the Pakistan-US relations has material consequences for Islamabad, especially with regard to the timely approval of the crucial next loan programme of the International Monetary Fund. In this context, the new Pakistani government is likely eager to improve this relationship and carry it beyond surface-level interactions.

The Biden administration’s apparent disinterest in alleged election irregularities in Pakistan serves as a tacit acknowledgement of its willingness to collaborate with the new government. Nevertheless, the Pakistan-US relationship is expected to remain at this current level for some time, as with the presidential elections now so close, Washington is unlikely to change direction or significantly alter its policies towards the region in the next few months.

This period of stagnation, however, could be an opportunity for the new Sharif government to prepare for the future, and devise a strategy that would allow the two countries to move their relationship to the next level, find new areas to collaborate and move past the transactional state of affairs.

All this does not mean Pakistan can afford to neglect its equally important bilateral relationship with China.

While assistance from the US is crucial for securing the next IMF deal, Pakistan also requires immediate financial support from China to stabilise its struggling economy. With mounting inflation, dwindling foreign exchange reserves, and the PMLN’s ambitious election pledge of achieving 5 percent gross domestic product (GDP) growth by the end of 2026, Pakistan’s need for Chinese aid and investment is increasingly urgent.

This is why many expect Sharif to make the first foreign trip of his second term in power to China. During his time in the opposition, Sharif severely criticised the PTI government for slowing work on projects tied to the China-led initiative. Therefore, his new government is likely to focus on reinvigorating these projects and securing additional Chinese investment into special economic zones (SEZs) for the successful culmination of the second phase of CPEC.

In addition to economic support, Pakistan relies on Chinese military assistance to fulfil its mounting defence needs. As the Indo-US strategic partnership continues to expand, Pakistan is poised to further deepen its defence and security ties with China. Chinese help is also crucial for Islamabad in managing relations with its western neighbours, Afghanistan and Iran.

However, the challenge for Pakistan’s new government lies in avoiding alignment with China at the expense of its equally important relationship with the US. Maintaining a delicate balance between the two is imperative for Pakistan’s diplomatic and strategic interests.

Many in Islamabad contend that Pakistan can still serve as a bridge between Washington and Beijing. Nonetheless, the deepening strategic rivalry between the US and China makes significant diplomatic successes, like Henry Kissinger’s Pakistan-facilitated secret visit to Beijing in 1971, much more difficult to achieve. Back then, Pakistan was successful in convincing the US secretary of state to get on a plane because Washington needed to stop China from getting closer to the Soviet camp in an already fraught Cold War environment. Today, in the eyes of the most important political players in Washington, China appears to have replaced Russia as the primary threat to the US. Thus, chances for Pakistan to facilitate a positive reconciliation between the two global powers, let alone a transformation of relations like the one it achieved in 1971, are almost nonexistent. Moreover, achieving such a diplomatic feat would necessitate political and economic stability at home, which is something the Sharif government definitely does not have at the moment.

For now, Islamabad’s foreign policy priority will be to play a balancing game and deepen relations with each global power as much as possible without upsetting the other.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.