Pakistan’s last-minute decision not to attend President Joe Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” this week despite a months-long campaign for an invitation followed intense pressure from China that it back out, U.S. News has learned, amid fears in Beijing that the administration’s attempt to rally world powers undermines some of its most closely held goals.
Chinese officials told their Pakistani counterparts that participating in the two-day virtual summit this week would be detrimental to their increasingly interconnected relations, particularly since Taiwan – which Beijing considers a renegade province of the mainland – was also invited to participate, a source familiar with China’s decision-making says on the condition of anonymity.
Though China has prioritized its economic and military partnership with Pakistan in recent years as a tool to effect its broader plans in Asia, Beijing ultimately considered its influence over Islamabad as the most powerful instrument it could wield to try to undermine Biden’s summit and demonstrate its outrage over it.
“They view this summit as a real poke in the eye to China, meant to try to create two spheres of politics in the world – one meant to be led by America and the rest is anyone else not in the U.S. camp,” the source says. “The invitation to Taiwan, they said, is extremely antagonistic because it is creating this impression that there is an alternative to the People’s Republic of China, and it is effectively one step closer to saying Taiwan is a legitimate nation – not part of the PRC.”
And Taiwan sought to capitalize on the moment. As Digital Minister Audrey Tang said before the virtual assembly, “Although Taiwan is a young democracy, it’s standing firm on the front
lines of the global struggle with authoritarianism.”
The list of participating countries itself has spurred global debate, as some de facto democracies that have witnessed autocratic backsliding, such as Russia and Turkey – a NATO ally – were not invited while others, like Pakistan, were.
Though a contentious decision, some inside the White House reportedly saw Pakistan’s participation as a way to mend a broken relationship and pushed in recent months to accept its request for an invitation – a difficult decision following years of suspicion in Washington of Islamabad’s duplicity, particularly with regard to the war in Afghanistan.
Biden has been touting the need for a democracy summit since the presidential campaign. In a congratulatory tweet immediately following Biden’s election, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was looking forward to attending the summit, though Pakistan’s invitation at that time was far from certain. In fact, the two leaders have not spoken since Biden took office – a point of particular irritation for Islamabad.
Then this week, Khan surprised many around the world with a snap announcement the day before the summit was supposed to begin on Thursday that he would not participate – nor would any minister from his government. His Foreign Ministry offered few explanations in its statement, saying, “We remain in contact with the U.S. on a range of issues and believe that we can engage on this subject at an opportune time in the future.”
The driving force behind decision-making at this level in Pakistan is often unclear, though several sources confirm in this case it appears Khan pushed the final outcome, not the top officials of the military who often overrule civilian leaders on issues of this consequence.
“The army would have preferred to have attended the democracy summit, but they didn’t feel it was important enough to overrule Imran Khan,” a former U.S. diplomat familiar with the current situation in Pakistan says on the condition of anonymity.
Chinese influence was important in this decision, the diplomat says, adding that Khan “feels he has been humiliated. Nearly a year in and Biden has not picked up the phone to call him. That’s becoming an issue in Pakistani politics.”
And Pakistan has ostensibly benefited greatly from its bolstered relations with China in recent years. Beijing’s signature Belt and Road infrastructure investments have focused heavily on projects in Pakistan, particularly two key routes that help connect western China to the sea. And Islamabad has benefited from a new intelligence sharing arrangement that U.S. News first reported last year.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., declined to respond to questions about its pressure on Pakistan with regard to the summit. Instead, a spokesman in an emailed statement blasted the very idea of the virtual gathering, saying other international criticism shows “how unpopular the U.S. ‘Summit for Democracy’ is and how much opposition there is in the international community to it.”
“The U.S., based on its own criteria, listed half the countries and regions in the world as democracies and the rest as non-democracies,” spokesman Liu Pengyu said. “This practice in itself runs counter to the spirit of democracy and exposes the U.S.’ true intention of weaponizing democracy, and using it as a tool and cover to advance its geostrategic agenda and repress dissenting voices.”
Pengyu added the summit “will only go down in history as a manipulator and saboteur of democracy.”
The rhetoric matches similar statements from other Chinese officials and a series of articles and op-eds plastered across China’s state news services in recent weeks. And Beijing has sought other measures to push back on the central idea of Biden’s summit – on Friday, it touted Nicaragua’s decision to leave the dwindling group of a dozen or so countries that recognized Taiwan and instead to formalize relations with China, a move Chinese state media lauded as “a ‘heavy blow’ to secessionists seeking U.S. support.”
Despite its own political troubles, Islamabad would have had much to tout during the two-day summit, which offers a platform to rally like-minded countries and for leaders around the world to discuss how they can better improve their governance.
“Though a weak one, Pakistan is one of the most populous democracies in the world, one of a handful of democracies in the Muslim world, and the only nuclear-armed Muslim majority nation,” Uzair Younus, director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council, wrote in an analysis note on Wednesday, shortly after Khan’s announcement. “The Democracy Summit was a perfect opportunity for the country to highlight its own democratic accomplishments, how its people have bravely confronted dictatorship and authoritarianism, and how a consensus-driven process, as flawed as it may have been over the decades, has birthed institutions capable of governing a diverse, multiethnic society.”
“Over the last few years, there has been growing unease in Washington about Pakistan’s deepening ties with China, with some in Washington talking about how growing indebtedness to the Chinese means that Pakistan will be unable to make its own foreign policy choices in an era of strategic competition,” Younus added. “The decision to skip the summit will only reinforce these views, empowering those who think that it is not worthwhile to forge a deeper bilateral relationship with Pakistan.”
And its decision to succumb to Chinese pressure all but dooms any attempts by the U.S. to try to heal fundamental rifts with Islamabad – a particularly consequential notion at a time Washington needs Pakistani cooperation to manage its counter-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan. Instead, Pakistan appears to be among the latest countries that finds itself in an increasingly bipolar world and forced to choose between Washington and Beijing.