Pakistan was the bad boy of international politics in the 1990s and 2000s. China has taken the place now.
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General Musharraf’s death reminded me of the focus of a lot of my writing on international relations in the 2000s when, after 9/11, Pakistan became the bad boy of the world.
Terrorist plots in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Pacific would be traced back to Pakistan, its military establishment and what we call the military-jihadi complex. Everyone knew that the unholy nexus between the Pakistani military establishment — particularly the ISI –, the large number of jihadist groups and organised crime networks were involved, but Gen Musharraf purchased a fig leaf for himself and his country by joining the United States’ “global war on terror” as a frontline ally. Washington saw it in its interests to be partially hoodwinked so that it could pretend that things in Afghanistan and Pakistan were being managed, if not in control.
Convenient fiction didn’t change the fact that Gen Musharraf had neither stopped supporting jihadist outfits nor that many big and small terrorist plots around the world had a significant Pakistani dimension. Meanwhile the Pakistani economy was broken, its army ate up a lot of the foreign assistance it was getting and headlines like “Pakistan is on the brink” were quite common. The Pakistani elite had learned how to play on the brink, pointing guns to their own heads and scaring the world into paying up to avoid nukes falling into the hands of terrorists. The 3dB point in Pakistan’s geopolitical obsolescence to the West came after Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbotabad in May 2011. The next 3dB point came last year after American troops left Kabul in the hands of the Taliban, and the can of worms in the hands of the Pakistani military establishment. The headlines still say “Pakistan is on the brink” but no one seems to be overly concerned.
That’s because China has taken Pakistan’s place as the world’s biggest headache. China is picking fights in the Western Pacific, the Taiwan Straits, the Himalayas, the Indian Ocean, the horn of Africa and earlier this month over the skies of North America. Putin’s adventure in Ukraine stands on Chinese support. The coronavirus pandemic originated in China and was exacerbated by Beijing’s intransigence. Cyber attacks around the world are being traced to Chinese sources.
Pakistan was being nasty to its religious and sectarian minorities. So is China. And if Pakistan used economic weakness and indebtedness to acquire influence, China is using strength and ‘creditedness’ to do the same.
Both countries are run by opaque unaccountable brotherhoods defending the ideological frontiers of their populations. And they are tight allies.
This is not an argument to say that China will end up like Pakistan. They are two quite different countries, people and polities. But China has taken over Pakistan’s status as the world’s biggest headache.
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