What will a Biden presidency mean for US-Pakistan relations?
Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on January 20. Unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump, who pursued what he called an “America First” foreign policy and attempted to move the US outside the post-WWII multilateral status quo, Biden is expected to have a more traditional approach to foreign affairs, supportive of multilateral organisations and focused on restoring Washington’s international standing and alliances.
So what will this mean for US-Pakistan relations? Biden’s rise to power is unlikely to drastically change the issue-specific and transactional nature of the relationship between the two nations, but it will present Pakistan with opportunities to strengthen its strategic and economic ties with the US – especially as the planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan forces Washington to redefine its interests in the region.
For 20 years, the war in Afghanistan shaped US-Pakistan ties. At a time when this dynamic is expected to change, Biden’s presence in the White House can help the foreign policy establishment in Islamabad forge new partnerships with Washington based on the two nation’s mutual geopolitical and economic interests.
Unlike Trump, Biden knows Pakistan. He travelled 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 providing annual civilian assistance of $1.5bn to Pakistan between 2010 and 2014. But perhaps more importantly, contrary to Trump’s unpredictable, unilateralist, personal and at times erratic approach to foreign affairs, Biden believes in dealing with other nations through institutions. This means the relationship between the US and Pakistan will be more stable during his presidency.
However, 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 during Biden’s presidency. While India is China’s main rival in the region, Pakistan has growing economic and strategic ties to the country.
As a result, under the Trump presidency, the US moved closer to India than ever before. Just last month, New Delhi and Washington signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which will provide India real-time access to American geospatial intelligence, enhancing the accuracy of its missiles, armed drones, and automated systems. And last year, the Trump administration’s partisan response to the Pulwama-Balakot crisis between India and Pakistan, where he urged both sides to de-escalate after an Indian military incursion into Pakistan, eroded the long-held belief in Pakistan that the US is a relatively neutral arbiter in the decades-old rivalry between the two neighbours.
Biden will undoubtedly keep supporting India against China in the region, but unlike Trump, he is also expected to take steps to restore the US’s role as a strategic balancer between Islamabad and New Delhi. Moreover, the new US president is expected to adopt a less aggressive approach towards Beijing than his predecessor in order to secure some cooperation on issues like ending the coronavirus pandemic, addressing climate change, and ensuring nuclear non-proliferation.
So far, Pakistan managed to remain neutral in the competition between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific region. As a result, it is well placed to provide a communication back-channel between Washington and Beijing if and when it is needed. This is a role Pakistan played successfully in the past. In the early 1970s, Islamabad facilitated Washington’s outreach to Beijing, which resulted in President Richard Nixon paying a historic official visit to the country in 1972.
Furthermore, the Biden administration is expected to be more vocal in its criticism of India’s oppressive policies in Indian-administered Kashmir. This will give Pakistan an opportunity to more efficiently highlight India’s human rights abuses and international law violations in the disputed territory on the international arena and move its Kashmir policy forward.
But the Biden administration is also expected to be more critical of human rights violations, media censorship and mistreatment of minorities in Pakistan. In 2019, the US placed Pakistan on the blacklist of countries that violate religious freedoms. Biden will continue to pressure Islamabad to make improvements in this area. Pakistan will also face increased pressure from Washington to guarantee the safety of its nuclear arsenal during the Biden presidency. The Biden administration will also expect further action from Pakistan against armed groups based within its borders that are targeting India.
Despite these pressures, US-Pakistan relations will likely have a positive trajectory in the Biden era – if the ongoing Afghan peace process results in a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
If the intra-Afghan talks derail, and the conflict reignites, however, US-Pakistan relations will take a hit. In such a scenario, Biden will be more supportive of the Afghan government than his predecessor, and will likely put increased pressure on Pakistan to convince the Taliban to end hostilities. This does not mean the signing of a power-sharing agreement in Afghanistan would guarantee smooth relations between Islamabad and Washington. Under a Biden presidency, the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan will be gradual and conditional, and Washington will likely have some presence in the country for a long time. This could lead to renewed tensions with Islamabad.
But whatever happens in the region in the next four years, one fundamental dynamic will remain the same: Pakistan, despite its strong strategic and economic ties to China, will need US help to continue its development and keep its economy afloat.
Washington is Islamabad’s largest trading partner, with an annual trade volume of $ 6.5bn. Islamabad also needs Washington’s assistance to continue receiving help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) without being forced to fully submit to the fund and allow its technocrats to shape its economy. Similarly, it also needs Washington’s support to be taken out of the increased monitoring list of the Financial Action Task Force – the global watchdog for terror financing.
As a result, Pakistan will need to work closely with Biden during his presidency to increase economic cooperation between the two nations and have greater access to American markets. The Biden era could provide Pakistan with many economic opportunities, especially if the new president restores the US-Iran nuclear deal. This will help Pakistan access affordable Iranian gas and oil to get its struggling economy back on track.
But Pakistan cannot sit idly by and expect the new US administration to do all the work.
Pakistan’s discriminatory taxation laws, regulatory barriers and weak intellectual property safeguards have hindered US investments in Pakistan in the past. It should take action and implement the necessary reforms to make Pakistan an attractive partner to US business to encourage the Biden administration to invest more in the country. It should also find ways to use the sizeable Pakistani diaspora in the US as a bridge to attract more American investment.
All in all, Biden’s victory in the presidential election is good news for Pakistan, but Islamabad will need to work hard to ensure the country benefits from the change of leadership in Washington.