Pakistan’s decision to skip US President Joe Biden’s virtual democracy summit has come in for criticism and praise, but the truth is somewhere in between. The Foreign Office did not initially give any concrete reason for the rejection, but several source-based reports said Islamabad’s main concern was not bilateral, but trilateral — China was not invited. This was a somewhat odd reason. China does not claim to be a democracy, and most of the invitees are, at least on paper, democratic. Only three of the invitees scored a ‘not free’ ranking on the Freedom House Freedom in the world 2021 report — Iraq, Angola, and DR Congo — and all of these countries are from regions where democracy is almost non-existent, while they have shown some improvements in their performances.
That said, the invitation extended to Taiwan would certainly have offended China and caused concern to the Foreign Office — because Taiwan is a breakaway island that China wants to peacefully reunify. Pakistan has no official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, although limited trade has been taking place for decades. Another factor may well be the recently-announced diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics by the US and some of its allies. Without directly referring to any of these issues, Prime Minister Imran Khan did later say that US-China tensions are moving the world “towards a new Cold War”, adding, “Pakistan should try its best to stop the formation of these blocs because we should not become a part of any bloc.”
Beyond the China factor, Pakistan’s own relationship with the US has been strained since the Taliban took Kabul. There were also concerns that the US may use the opportunity to criticise Pakistan, even though the World Justice Project’s (WJP) Rule of Law index actually shows Pakistan making slight improvements over the past few years, while the US has been in decline. As WJP Chief Engagement Officer Ted Piccone recently noted, “The Summit for Democracy, and the year of action to follow, will prove its worth if it can help mobilize such political will, starting with a democratically dysfunctional United States.” Unfortunately, any America watchers will note that the continuing popularity of fascistic former president Donald Trump makes that unlikely.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 11th, 2021.