American zero-sum folly

In international relations, the zero-sum game theory postulates that the gains of one side are totally at the cost of the other side — that there can be no win- win for both sides.

American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been of pursuing this zero-sum approach in relations with other powers. Even as America’s sole superpower status waned since 2000 with the rise of China and Russia, the US has persisted with this approach through Bush’s “with us or against us” and Trump’s “America First” doctrines. The result has been growing international instability and disorder.

A clear manifestation of this American zero-sum folly is the recent controversy stirred up by the gratuitous criticism of CPEC by a US official, inviting a sharp rebuke by China and Pakistan. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. American attempts to contain and confront China – and Russia – cover the entire spectrum of global inter-state relations. The Trump administration’s national security strategy of treating China and Russia as “threats” to American security officially acknowledged US policies since the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations to ensure the continuum of the “Pax Americana” by preventing the emergence of any challenger. Such “hubris” became even more compelling with the disastrous campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq just as China and Russia emerged as serious competitors. Instead of cooperating with them, the US has chosen confrontation.

The American zero-sum policy has relied on what it thinks defeated the Soviet Union — democracy and free markets. In fact, Bush claimed it was America’s moral duty to project these values by persuasion where possible and by force where necessary. The “greater Middle East” was one such project. Using a combination of military force, financial inducements and intelligence operations, including through human rights and development agencies, the US has attempted a regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Georgia, Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Lebanon. Socialist governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba have also been targeted. More dangerously, instability is being stoked within China itself — in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, coupled with trade barriers and sanctions as well as an anti- China media blitz.

In contravention of the understanding with Russia concluded when its influence in Eastern Europe collapsed with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and Nato and the EU expanded to Russian borders. The last straw was the American- backed regime change in Ukraine, which threatened Moscow’s strategic interests in the Black Sea, leading to a Russian backlash. This has also led to a growing axis between Russia and China against the US.

Whereas US interference has been “justified” on the grounds of supporting democracy and human rights, pro- American regimes by contrast have been given a free pass, such as in India, Israel, Hungary, Chile, and Brazil among others, despite their massive human rights violations. The US itself is no shining example of liberty or freedom. Consider the continuing discrimination against African-Americans and Native Americans; the campaign against immigrants, especially the incarceration of hundreds of children as young as five-years-old in concentration camps after being forcibly separated from their parents; and the victimisation of Muslims.

But far more important from an international security perspective is the American pursuit of the zero-sum approach towards a strategic competition with China and Russia. Instead of recognising them as partners in evolving a stable international order, the US is intent upon maximising its interests at the total cost of its opponents. Rather than China’s win-win approach, the Americans are playing a winner takes all poker game. By strengthening its existing alliances in Asia with Japan, Australia and others while establishing new strategic partnerships with India, Vietnam and Singapore to control the Indo-Pacific region, the US seeks to contain China. Since over 80% of China’s economic lifeline passes through the sea lanes in this region, China has obviously pushed back by developing alternative land routes to Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. This is the strategic rationale for China’s BRI, in which CPEC is a flagship project.

Unwilling to accept this Chinese project since it would negate American efforts to contain China, the US has tried to undermine the BRI and together with India, to undercut CPEC. Both countries have claimed that CPEC passes through“disputed” territory, opposed the Chinese construction of Gwadar Port on the grounds that a Chinese naval base there would destabilise the Gulf, and have manipulated opposition to CPEC within Pakistan including India-sponsored terrorist attacks on Chinese workers and diplomats such as the attack on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi.

The pernicious statements against CPEC by Americans are a manifestation of this disruptive campaign, deliberately aimed at stocking Pakistani concerns about CPEC in particular, and Pakistan-China relations in general. Unfortunately, there are Pakistanis who, for their vested interests, are willing to accept such disinformation. While Pakistan must protect its interests including in relations with China, the fact remains that China has been and continues to remain a valuable partner which has made imminent contributions towards Pakistan’s security and development.

CPEC enhances this mutually beneficial Sino-Pakistan collaboration which can be a crucial vehicle for Pakistan’s future prosperity, involving Chinese investments in energy, infrastructure, industry, agriculture and tourism among others. As far as the charge of rising Pakistani debt to China is concerned, the fact is that over 80% of this debt is owed to Western countries and institutions, not to China (which in any case is on very favourable terms).

Unlike China, the US has not made any long-term investments towards Pakistan’s security or development. Even worse, its discriminatory policies of sanctions, denial of military and economic assistance and the full endorsement of India’s hegemonic ambitions, not only undermine Pakistan’s security but is a threat to the regional peace and stability. In this environment of great power competition generated by America’s zero- sum approach, Pakistan needs to secure its interests by further strengthening its partnership with China. This does not imply that it should be hostile to the US, but it should certainly be realistic about its relations with America in which there is ever increasing divergence.


Zamir Akram

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