The comments were incendiary and call into question whether even the so-called adults in the administration of US President Donald Trump understand the extent to which their words can cause damage.
The strategic rivalry between the US and China means the latter’s Belt and Road initiative is unlikely to be looked on with great approval by any US administration. But US Secretary of Defence James Mattis has controversially waded into the CPEC debate by claiming that the “One Belt, One Road also goes through disputed territory”, an obvious reference to CPEC’s route through Gilgit-Baltistan.
The astonishing comment has seemingly aligned the US with India on CPEC and possibly even the Kashmir dispute — a potentially shocking development with far-reaching consequences that the Trump administration appears oblivious to.
Indeed, for a US administration that has remained studiously silent about the atrocities by Indian forces in IHK, it is remarkable that a senior official has decided to weigh in on the Kashmir dispute in a manner that blindly supports the Indian position.
When President Trump signalled a South Asia strategy in outlining his Afghan policy earlier in the year, was he really suggesting a plan of pitting India against Pakistan to further US strategic goals in the region? The mere possibility would have disastrous consequences for the region and beyond.
Even from a narrower perspective, Mr Mattis’s attack on CPEC is deeply troubling. The corridor’s vast potential of helping Pakistan become a trading hub and grow and diversify its economy is universally recognised. For Pakistan, there is an inherent challenge to ensure that CPEC’s maximum gains accrue to this country and not to outside investors, workers and communities. But CPEC is an undeniably historic opportunity and represents a commitment to Pakistan that is unrivalled.
So why is Mr Mattis coming down on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of the true interests of the people of Pakistan in trying to tarnish the initiative?
The US has hardly been rushing to Pakistan’s economic assistance in recent times. In fact, its officials have routinely threatened to withhold legitimate economic assistance for all manner of perceived offences. Unhappily, there is a history of the US trying to bully Pakistan into staying strictly inside the US orbit of influence.
The Iran-Pakistan pipeline, for example, was opposed by the US at a time of acute gas shortages here simply because the US was then pursuing the economic isolation of Iran. The pipeline ought to have been Pakistan’s right to pursue and was in this country’s clear strategic interest — but the US effectively vetoed it even though it was not apparent that American sanctions at the time necessarily applied to the pipeline.
Now it is CPEC that appears to be in America’s cross hairs.