By Dr. Syed Mohammad Ali
Like most other countries around the world, Pakistan was in a wait and see mode on how its relationship with the United States would be impacted with the arrival of Biden administration. Pakistan’s omission from the list of invitees for the first international summit on climate change, being hosted by President Biden on April 23 and 24, is considered a bad omen by those arguing for a reset of US-Pakistan ties.
The Biden administration has invited 40 world leaders to this climate summit, which includes not only its traditional allies, but also Russia and China. From South Asia, India, Bangladesh and even Bhutan have been sent invites. Yet, Pakistan which is the fifth most populous country in the world, and amongst the top ten countries most vulnerable to climate change, has been sidelined.
Why the Biden administration chose to sideline Pakistan from the climate summit is puzzling, especially when the recently released Global Trends assessment by the US government’s National Intelligence Council itself has warned that water insecurity poses a major risk for South Asia. According to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) forecasts, Pakistan is confronted with absolute water scarcity by 2025 due to its poor water conservative practices, combined with the impacts of climate change.
Some see differences over how to approach the peace process in Afghanistan as the cause for Pakistan’s exclusion from the U.S. led climate summit. The Biden administration’s announcement to delay military withdrawal from Afghanistan till September 11th has created a precarious situation for Pakistan. Pakistan will now be under tremendous pressure to help convince the Taliban not to withdraw from the negotiations process or begin targeting international forces now that the timeline for American withdrawal has been extended beyond the May deadline. However, attributing Pakistan’s exclusion from the climate summit as a signal of American frustration with the peace process in Afghanistan seems unlikely. There are instead a range of issues, including the very nature of US-Pakistan bilateral relations, which need to be considered to understand why Pakistan has been invited to Biden’s climate summit and what this decision in turn implies.
Geopolitics and the Future of US – Pakistan Ties
In addition to Pakistan’s utility in helping negotiate peace and ensuring long term stabilization in Afghanistan, the growing role of China in South Asia, and the protracted rivalry between nuclearized India and Pakistan, all necessitate America’s continued engagement with the country.
China and Pakistan have developed much closer ties over the past two decades. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative has become a flagship for the much more ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China has recently inked treaties with Iran and Afghanistan to bring them into the folds of the BRI as well. On the other hand, after hosting talks on the Afghan peace process, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has recently visited Pakistan and India. His trip to India crisscrossed with that of Biden’s climate czar John Kerry. Earlier on March 12, the virtual Quad summit was held, focusing amongst other matters, on an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. This was followed by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to India.
Under the Biden administration, the US remains keen to focus on India as a strategic partner. How India aims to balance its existing defense ties with Russia, while developing greater synergy with the US, has some parallel to the balance that Pakistan is attempting to achieve in its bilateral relations with China and US.
Some US strategists believe that while Pakistan remains a key stakeholder in furthering the tenuous peace process in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s utility is going to diminish after the US has physically exited the region. For example, speaking at a virtually event at the Karachi Council on Foreign Relations on January 12, former US ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter stated that under Biden, Pakistan will be less of a priority, and that US-Pakistan ties are likely to be defined more by multilateralism rather than bilateral engagements. However, by sidelining Pakistan from the climate summit, Biden also seems to be denying Pakistan the benefit of US led materialism on climate change.
While great-power rivalry may continue to escalate under Biden, dealing with climate change requires keeping politics out and working with countries which are most vulnerable to climate change, and where the potential of climate change poses the danger of becoming a ‘threat multiplier’. Excluding Pakistan from the climate summit does not only impact its bilateral relationship with the US, this move also implies foregoing some important opportunities for regional cooperation which have wide-ranging implications for American strategic interests as well.
Lost Opportunity 1 – Facilitating cooperation between China and US
As the U.S. continues to partner with Pakistan on extremism, its bilateral relationship with India has made major strides during the past two decades, partly in the bid to counter China’s growing influence in the region. Conversely, Pakistan has increasing begun to rely on China to meet its infrastructure and energy needs, culminating in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Initially welcoming Chinese investments in Pakistan as the means to help stabilize Pakistan, the US has become increasingly wary of CPEC turning into the flagship project for the ambition Belt and Road Initiative. The Trump administration adopted an increasingly maximalist view of Pakistan’s relationship with China, and it warned Pakistan of falling prey to Chinese debt diplomacy.
With the Biden administration aiming to explore a broader spectrum of engagements with China, including not only confrontation and competition, but also cooperation, Pakistan seemed well positioned to offer both countries a chance to collaborate.
Pakistani policy makers have been reiterating that they do not want to pick sides in the strategic rivalry between China and the United States. While Pakistan may not be able to replicate the facilitative role that it played during the Nixon era to facilitate the Sino-American rapprochement, it could offer American firms an opportunity to invest in Chinese funded projects within Pakistan. Pakistan could especially benefit from collaboration between the two great powers to help make CPEC energy projects greener.
It is unfortunate that the Biden administration has squandered an ideal opportunity to jointly discuss such possibilities with China and Pakistan at the upcoming climate summit in the US.
Lost Opportunity 2 – Encouraging environmental diplomacy between India and Pakistan
Another missed opportunity of not inviting Pakistan to the Biden climate summit is the possibility of exploring means to put in place needed climate mitigation measures between India and Pakistan. Biden’s decision of giving John Kerry, the President’s Envoy on Climate Change, a seat on the National Security Council acknowledges how climate change is a threat multiplier, with the potential to aggravate preexisting sources of friction.
Nowhere else is the threat of climate change exacerbating conflict as severe as in South Asia, where nuclear-armed India and Pakistan share waters of the fast-melting Himalayan glacier.
Having brokered the longstanding Indus Water Treaty which divided the Himalayan waterways between these neighboring rivals, the US is well positioned to help put in place measures to conserve the Indus basin, and encourage other mitigation measures to build confidence instead of worsening relations between India and Pakistan.
During John Kerry’s current trip to Bangladesh and India to prepare for the coming climate summit, he encouraged Bangladesh and India to consider measures to better manage the Ganges river. But he was unable to do the same in the case of India and Pakistan, as Pakistan was not invited to the climate summit, nor was it a destination on Kerry’s itinerary.
Lost Opportunity 3 – Addressing water sharing concerns between Pakistan and Afghanistan
Pakistan’s exclusion from the Biden climate summit should not be interpreted as sign of American frustration with Pakistan over problems plaguing the Afghan peace plan. Yet, the absence of Afghanistan and Pakistan from the climate summit does have important implications. There is no water sharing agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan on the Kabul river, and this problem is being exacerbated by water scarcity and impending climate change threatening glacial flows feeding their shared waterways. Pakistan is also concerned about the Shahtoot Dam on Kabul River, being built with Indian support.
Afghanistan not getting an invite for Biden’s climate summit is perhaps understandable due to its uncertain political and security situation at present. However, the US could have invited the Pakistan government and worked with it to devise mechanism to better manage the Kabul river, which will only continue to grow in the future.
Pakistan’s government seems caught off guard by the apparent American rebuke of being excluded from Biden climate summit. Pakistan continues brandishing its credentials to address climate change via its internationally acknowledged forestation drive. However, Pakistan has not yet been able to put in place effective measures to curb pollution or to develop an effective water conservation strategy. While the nation remains a low emitter, this is not a major accomplishment either, given the size of its economy.
While Prime Minister Imran Khan pledged the country will produce 60% of its energy via renewable resources at the Climate Ambition summit last year, the country’s energy portfolio remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels.
Pakistan certainly had much to gain from inclusion in an American-led climate summit. Despite this omission, Pakistan must keep its eye out for subsequent opportunities for international cooperation, especially during the UN climate summit to be held in November. The fact that Pakistan’s tree tsunami won accolades at the Word Economic Forum, and now Saudi Arabia is thinking of emulating this initiative are encouraging moves. However, Pakistan still needs to secure broad support for its efforts to contend with multifaceted climate related threats.
One major area where Pakistan can still aim to secure needed international cooperation is by attempting to make ongoing CPEC investments more environmentally friendly. Greening of CPEC can provide a blueprint for the Chinese financed infrastructure and energy projects in other countries.
While U.S. may be unwilling to help Pakistan achieve this goal, European countries with greater stake in the BRI may be more proactive partners to facilitate this goal – and perhaps this where the focus should be before the UN based climate summit scheduled for the end of this year.
Dr. Syed Mohammad Ali is a Senior Fellow at PoliTact