In October, defence secretary Mattis told Congress that Pakistan could lose its Non-NATO ally status and be isolated globally if it did not take action against terrorist safe havens

by Kanwal Sibal

President Trump's New Year tweet castigating Pakistan for "lies and deceit" and for providing "safe havens to terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan" was followed up by an immediate suspension of $255 million of military aid and now another $900 million of security assistance. In August 2017, Trump had lambasted Pakistan for providing safe havens to "agents of chaos, violence and terror" and National Security Adviser Gen McMaster had demanded a change in Pakistan's behaviour in providing "support bases for the Taliban, Haqqani Network and others".

In October, defence secretary Mattis told Congress that Pakistan could lose its non-Nato ally status and be isolated globally if it did not take action against terrorist safe havens. In December, VP Pence while visiting Afghanistan announced that Pakistan was being put on notice to end its support for the Taliban. A senior administration official has just warned that the US is examining a range of tools that go beyond security assistance to convince Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban and Haqqani Network and that all options are on the table. Pakistan has resisted this prolonged US pressure, for which many explanations suggest themselves.

It may be confident that just as in the past it was able to handle serious differences with a much more globally dominant US, this time too when its options are not as narrow, it will pull through using as tools political defiance, whipping up anti-US public sentiment domestically, leveraging US dependence on Pakistan territory for providing logistic support for American troops in Afghanistan, blowing up the financial and human cost paid by Pakistan in combating terrorism spawned by US military intervention in Afghanistan, and, finally, flaunting its nuclear capability and stoking western fears about a nuclear showdown in South Asia. Hence Pakistan's aggressive posturing, encouraged no doubt by Trump's ineffective minatory tweets against North Korea and his increasingly embattled position at home. The China factor in the evolving situation has become most important. Pakistan has deeper political, economic and military ties with China today than with the US.

China is challenging US power in Asia, with Pakistan a major component of its Geo-economic and geopolitical strategy spanning the Asian land mass and the Indian Ocean. No wonder, it immediately countered Trump's tweet by calling on the international community to acknowledge Pakistan's "outstanding contribution" to counter-terrorism. This goes beyond support for Pakistan and is part of China's developing power struggle with the US. As in the case of the non-proliferation dimension of its nuclear collaboration with Pakistan, China defies America's leadership position on international terrorism issues when Pakistan is involved.

India is a factor in both cases, especially in view of improved India-US understandings on these two principal issues on which the US has until now led the international discourse. China has had to yield to Trump's heavy pressure on the North Korean nuclear issue in order to avoid trade sanctions. To retrieve ground, it will solidly back Pakistan where US interests are not as deeply involved.

In view of Trump's blistering rhetoric and US cabinet-level threats to penalise Pakistan for its misdemeanors, suspending military assistance is not enough. America should be clear that countering China's quest for dominating Asia should begin in Pakistan. President Xi's Belt and Road Initiative, of which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a crucial part, can be most effectively countered in Pakistan. China uses Pakistan to weaken India's resistance to its hegemonic aspirations.

Strengthening India's capacity to counter China's disruptive ambitions also requires much stronger US action against Pakistan than has been announced so far.

The author is a former foreign secretary