James Jay Carafano

Pakistan fears two things more than war with India: pressure from Washington and indifference from Beijing. In the latest round of tit-for-tat fighting with India, Pakistan saw a bit of both – more evidence that the country may be heading for the strategic dead-end of South Asia geo-politics. That’s not the best outcome for Pakistan or the United States.

Islamabad and New Delhi have been rivals since the partition of India created Pakistan in 1947. Their enmity wasn’t dampened when both sides got nuclear weapons in the 1980s.

But some things have changed. Today India sees Pakistan in its rearview mirror. India is focused on its role as an Indo-Pacific power and a rising global economic player.

Pakistan has long tried to prop up its regional relevance and influence, in part, by supporting insurgencies and tolerating terrorist groups that undermine stability in India, as well as neighboring Afghanistan.

These tactics have taken a terrible human toll – even in Pakistan, which has seen more than its share of extremist violence. Yet they are no longer enough to turn India’s trajectory.

Pakistan’s other recourse for relevance has been to play “great power” politics. It has looked to both the U.S. and China to balance Islamabad’s relationship with Delhi. And now that’s a problem.

The India-U.S. strategic relationship is quickly outpacing relations between America and Pakistan. This latest incident was a case in point. When terrorists struck in Kashmir, the message from the U.S. administration was pretty clear: India, we have your back.

That’s not to say U.S.-India ties are frictionless. Washington just dropped India from its Generalized System of Preferences program. That will slap about $5 billion in new tariffs on Indian goods heading to the U.S.

But President Trump has a penchant for running economic, security and diplomatic policies on separate tracks. While Delhi and Washington may continue to spar over how to build better economic ties, the Trump team will continue to press forward to strengthen the strategic partnership with India.

Pakistan clearly lags India in importance as an American strategic ally in the region. But turning to Beijing doesn’t seem to offer Islamabad much of value.

So far, what Pakistan has gotten from economic engagement with Beijing is mostly debt. Pakistan’s economy is so lackluster that Islamabad is seeking a $12 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. If granted, it would be the 13th bailout the country has received since the 1980s.

Nor does China appear to be delivering the diplomatic clout that Pakistan needs. For example, Beijing couldn’t prevent the international Financial Action Task Force from “grey listing” Pakistan for its weakness in combating money laundering and terrorist financing. In fact, under pressure from the U.S. and others, Pakistan may soon find itself “blacklisted” as a non-cooperative state.

In the Pakistan-China relationship, Beijing seems primarily interested in helping itself. Over the long term, the strategic relationship could have little value beyond making Islamabad a tool of Chinese policy and perhaps, someday, a suburb of Beijing.

There is no easy exit for Pakistan. India won’t be cowed by terrorism. Further, as the latest incident on the frontier demonstrated, there are limits to intensifying conflict between the two nuclear-armed countries. It was not surprising that Pakistan quickly returned a downed-Indian fighter pilot to deescalate the confrontation.

Further, it doesn’t look like Pakistan can leverage either the U.S. or China to pressure India.

Yet dismantling the terrorist infrastructure and accompanying web of corruption that riddle Pakistan presents tremendous challenges as well. On the other hand, a Pakistan that muddles through in South Asia just risks being left further behind.

There should be no joy in Washington at Pakistan’s problems. What is in the best interest of the U.S. is a peaceful and prosperous South Asia. But that’s not possible without a Pakistan that can partner with others and deliver the kind of regional economic integration that would jumpstart progress.

Washington can’t sugarcoat the problem. Pakistan needs to make some fundamental changes. It must stop indulging terrorism and tolerating corruption. It can begin by remaining engaged with those who are willing work for a better national – and regional – future and by punishing those who make trouble for neighboring countries.