WASHINGTON: Pakistan and the United States will hold ministerial-level talks in Washington on Monday (today), indicating willingness on part of both sides to resume institutionalised engagement after a long absence.
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari reached Washington on Sunday on a three-day visit during which he will hold in person talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
He will also have a separate meeting with State Department’s Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs Dilawar Syed, reflecting a mutual desire to deepen trade ties between the two old allies. He is also meeting key Congressional leaders on the Hill.
Officially, both sides have only forwarded a generic description of the talks, saying meetings would “highlight flood relief efforts in Pakistan and commemorate 75 years of bilateral relations”.
At an earlier briefing to Dawn, State Department’s counselor Derek Chollet acknowledged that the United States wanted to maintain friendly ties with Pakistan and was even ready to compete with China to do so.
But he also said that in doing so, the Biden administration does not want Islamabad to choose between Beijing and Washington, rather it wants countries “to be able to have a choice”. The United States, he said, was not “afraid of competing with China, but we would like to have a fair competition”.
This clearly illustrates a sketch of the relationship Washington wants with Islamabad, a close ally, which can maintain its special relationship with China without allowing it to affect its ties with the United States.
But the issue that’s going to dominate the talks is the one that was not even there when these talks were planned: this year’s unprecedented floods that have brought Pakistan close to an economic meltdown.
Pakistan is seeking, but not getting, international assistance that matches the scale of the disaster that befell the country this summer.
Michael Kugelman, Director of South Asia Institute at Washington’s Wilson Centre, said in a tweet on Sunday that during a recent trip to Pakistan, “the main message I heard on the floods is that the only hope is international aid, which has been slow to come”.
But the “biggest obstacle to addressing the crisis may not be the lack of international aid, but political polarisation at home,” he wrote.
Madiha Afzal, a Pakistan scholar at Brookings, another Washington think tank, also highlighted this issue in her tweet. “Pakistan’s political polarisation is so hardened now that nothing seems to be able to reduce it — not its flooding catastrophe, nor anything else,” she wrote. “Doesn’t bode well.”
Some experts warn that this could also impact efforts to rebuild US-Pakistan ties as scholars and policy makers in Washington also worry about the stability of the current political setup in Islamabad.
And as the two scholars indicated, this was already affecting Islamabad’s efforts to raise funds for the relief and rehabilitation of flood victims.
In his speeches and statements at the UN General Assembly this week, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif not only appealed to the international community to help Pakistan but also assured them that the funds they send would be used for the victims only. Apparently, he did so to assure the donors that the aid would not be misappropriated, as some of them fear.
Experts say that in their talks in Washington, Pakistan would not only seek, and probably get, more assistance but would also ask for US support to its efforts to reschedule its debt. In his engagements at the UN, the prime minister minced no words in reminding the donors that “all hell may break lose” if Pakistan does not get debt relief.
Mr Chollet, when asked if the United States would help Pakistan in getting its debt rescheduled, said Washington was aware of the situation but he did “not want to get ahead of an official US decision” on this issue.