What’s driving US pessimism about Pakistani nukes?

Pakistan has had a special place in the American policy over the past two decades and since the US-led NATO invasion of Afghanistan their bilateral ties saw a major boost. But these days, tensions are hitting Washington-Islamabad relations and risk leaving a negative impact on them. The US President Joe Biden in a recent speech during mid-term election campaign claimed that Pakistan could be one of the “most dangerous nations” because it has “nuclear weapons without any cohesion.”

Immediately after these remarks, Islamabad officials responded with severe criticism. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said that he was surprised by the US president’s remarks, adding: “Pakistan is a responsible nuclear state that is perfectly capable of safeguarding its national interest whilst respecting international law and practices.” The Minister of Energy of Pakistan also considered the words of Biden as an empty accusation and called them baseless and said that Biden’s anti-Pakistani accusations are of no importance and that Islamabad is confident about the security of its nuclear facilities and this issue has been confirmed many times by the world’s nuclear watchdog. Also, Pakistan summoned the American ambassador and expressed its concern about the new US approach. After a flood of criticism from Islamabad, to defuse the tensions, Washington officials acknowledged that Washington is confident in Islamabad’s commitment to ensure the safety of nuclear assets and values ​​long-term relations with Pakistan.

Although the White House officials tried to show that the relations with Islamabad were at their highest level and such remarks cannot damage them, in the comments that Biden made in the unstable global conditions, and which their time of choice was purposeful, there are a set of influential factors.

Concerns about a weak and unstable government

The US position on the Pakistani nuclear weapons comes as Pakistan has always been one of the most politically unstable countries in the world. On the one hand, the Pakistani army has the last world in the politics and every few years stages a coup and on the other hand the Pakistani military intelligence agency, officially called Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in rivalry with India backs the Salafi groups in Kashmir and tribal areas in the north, and this situation, from the American viewpoint, is potentially dangerous for a country with nuclear capabilities.

Also, with Pakistan being an economically weak state and always in need of foreign aids, the maintenance of its nuclear warheads has always been on the US shoulder. Washington, however, seeks to put the burden on the Pakistani government and cut its costs.

The Biden comments in the present conditions carry another message to Islamabad. Since the Pakistani officials did not take a strong tone against Russia concerning Ukraine war and somehow leaned more to the Russian side than to the West, the US administration is seeking to chastise Pakistan for this behavior. Washington expected its allies to stand by the West in the Ukraine crisis so that with their help it could isolate the traditional rival Russia, but the Pakistani government did not go along with the West. Imran Khan, the former Pakistan PM, went to Moscow hours after the start of the war and infuriated Washington and the Americans immediately removed him from power with the help of the Pakistani army in a quasi-coup, but the change of government could not meet the interests of the West because the new prime minister is somehow aligned with Russia’s policies in the region.

PM Shahbaz Sharif’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) conference in Uzbekistan and signing economic deals with some regional states, including Russia, very well portray the country’s tendency to the Eastern, rather than Western, bloc. A few months ago, the Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman, in response to the Western pressures for this country to join the anti-Russian sanctions, said that Islamabad has a principled position on sanctions and that it demands the use of a global mechanism for sanctions, which means that this process should be managed by the UN. Driven by this approach, Islamabad has so far not complied with these sanctions. Even a few months after the start of the war in Ukraine, Pakistan’s government ordered two million tons of wheat from Russia, in the US defiance. Therefore, Biden’s recent stance is also related to Islamabad’s policy concerning Ukraine.

Pakistan’s closeness to China

Although political instability, economic weakness, and the Ukraine issue are all effective in new American approach to Pakistan, there is an issue beyond these for which the White House is trying to take revenge on Islamabad. Since Washington has named China as its biggest rival and the main threat to its global interests in its national security strategy document, any country that has extensive relations with China will anger Washington. Islamabad is one of the countries that has moved towards convergence and alliance with Beijing in the last decade, and this means it preferred China over the US. Since China needs sea and land routes to advance its grand plans, it has focused on certain countries for its success. Advancing its relations with Pakistan over the past years, China managed to implement huge projects in the country.

Although until last decade their trade volume was trivial, after their signing of a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2013, and its official implementation in 2015, their trade touched $18 billion. The Gwadar Port project was another factor shoring up their trade. Their trade is expected to develop fast in next years. According to some data, China has invested about $46 billion for the development of land and sea infrastructure in Pakistan, and this is a big amount of money that can save Pakistan from poverty in the coming years. A significant part of this money is supposed to be used for the construction of the roads and railways from Gwadar port in the southwest of Pakistan to Kashgar in the northwest of China. These railways and roads with a length of more than 3000 kilometers will connect China directly to the Indian Ocean and so they are a win-win project for both countries. Pakistan is also trying to get rid of this miserable economic condition with the help of China and since Pakistan is located on the path of China’s Road and Belt Initiative and will play an important role in this megaproject, it tries to involve China as much as possible in its economy and solve its problems on the strength of Beijing’s huge investments.

Launching of Gwadar Port and CPEC can provide new opportunities for improvement of bilateral ties and can lead to business convergence of China and India with the regional states. That is why Pakistan is consonant to China in regional affairs and their cooperation in SCO is set to elevate to strategic levels in the future, posing a threat to the US that is struggling to maintain this nascent organization. Actually, Washington is severely concerned about Islamabad’s closeness to Beijing and downscale of the cooperation on safeguarding the Pakistani nuclear weapons is driven by an American hope for Pakistan to review its policies to China under pressure. The American closeness to Pakistan’s rival, India, in recent years has been meant to punish Islamabad. Pakistan and India have been at loggerheads over borders for 7 decades. Through widening its interactions with New Delhi, Washington tries to tip the scales in India’s favor in a show of its anger to the Pakistani officials and army breaking with Western plans and policies in the region. Besides, the White House considers India as one of essential pillars of regional coalition-making efforts in East Asia to contain China.

Israeli security considerations

Since all of the American measures in the West Asia region are tailored to secure the Israeli interests, recent Biden comments regarding Pakistan certainly have to do with Tel Aviv. The US has always pushed to keep the Muslim countries in the weakest military conditions so that they cannot confront Israel. It, thus, finds Pakistan —as the only Muslim nation with nukes— a threat to the Israeli security. The Americans are building pressure on Pakistan to down scale its nuclear power or at least put its nuclear weapons under international control.

Since some Arab countries saw a shift in their views on nuclear weapons after Ukraine war, the Americans are afraid they go to making these mass destruction weapons secretly. Since Pakistan had earlier announced that it will share some of its peaceful nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia, it is possible that other Arab countries will also purchase this technology from it. Since the Saudis and the Emiratis have huge wealth and Pakistan is cash-strapped, the Arab monarchies are likely to take advantage of Islamabad’s need and persuade it to secretly provide them with the technology to produce atomic bombs. This poses a great threat to Israel, which struggles to prevent Iran and other Arab countries in the region from achieving such capabilities.

But the vindictive American pressures on Pakistan not only will not serve the West, but also, they can deliver the reverse and push Islamabad even closer to the Eastern bloc, as the American strategic ally Saudi Arabia, as an example, recently adopted a policy of closeness to Russia and China in reaction to anti-Saudi American positions.

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