Ammar Ali Jan (Haqooq-e-Khalq Party, Pakistan): ‘Global South countries are increasingly being forced to pick a side between powers’

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Ammar Ali Jan is general secretary of the anti-capitalist Haqooq-e-Khalq Party in Pakistan, author of Rule By Fear: Eight Theses Authoritarianism in Pakistan and a historian whose research focuses on Communist thought in colonial Asia. He spoke with Federico Fuentes for LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal about global politics, growing tensions between the United States, and China, the impacts of this on Pakistan and implications for anti-imperialism in the Global South today.

Following the end of the Cold War, global politics seemed dominated by wars seeking to reinforce US imperialism as the sole global hegemon. In recent years, a shift appears to be taking place. While the US has been forced to withdraw from Afghanistan, we have seen China’s economic rise, Russia invade Ukraine, and smaller nations, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, flexing military power beyond their borders. How do you understand the current dynamics within global imperialism?

For most of the past 30 years we had a one-sided global hegemonic order that was under almost complete US domination. But we should note that the role played by imperialism changed in that time. During the Cold War, the US was under pressure from the Soviet Union to give concessions and aid to newly decolonised countries. However, after the Cold War, a very different version of imperialism emerged, especially in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The US invaded countries, causing a great deal of destruction, but without any plans for reconstruction. In the name of fighting the Taliban, the US was in Afghanistan for 22 long years. But when it left, the US handed back power to the Taliban with the country in worse shape than when it arrived. The same happened with Iraq, with Libya, etc. I often say that the US became a demolition squad: there to demolish without any plans for reconstruction, even from the previous perspective of creating a workable state that imperialism could manipulate. Any kind of nation-building project has been abandoned and replaced with a more brutal, almost 19th century version of imperialism, in which extracting raw materials and minerals is the primary focus.

If we turn to the past 10-15 years, we can see other interesting, if very contradictory, developments. One is that the US’ ability to impose its will has been considerably weakened, particularly after its debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US’ inability to manage its affairs in the Middle East, to roll back the Pink Tide [of left and centre-left governments] in Latin America, and to control Russia and China all represent a steep and steady decline in US power. This has been compounded by the fact the US has become a rentier state presiding over a rent-seeking economy. The US no longer has the productive capacity it had up until the middle of the 20th century. It has become a financialised economy, while global production has shifted towards the Far East.

This has led to a tectonic shift in global politics: after almost 30 years of unchallenged US hegemony, there is the rise of new players on the global political scene. China’s emergence, in particular, has made the US extremely nervous. Despite China’s internal flaws, many of the countries that have fallen out of favour with the US see China as a new emerging pole to gather around. We have recently seen Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro visiting Beijing and Brazilian president] Lula da Silva forging closer ties with China. We can also see this in all the talk about de-dollarisation [using currencies other than the US dollar for trading between countries]. A kind of broad alliance between a rising industrial power, China, and countries in the Global South has emerged — and has the potential to displace US hegemony.

One thing to look out for is that when you have a declining empire, such as the US today, it often resorts to maintaining hegemony through military means. The danger is that a lot of countries, such as Pakistan, will get caught up in rising military tensions between the US and China. I think every country will, unfortunately, have to make a choice as it will be very difficult to stay neutral or remain isolated, particularly for the poorer countries of the Global South that are dependent on foreign aid and imports. What we are seeing is the emergence of a bifurcated world, where decisions with big consequences will have to be made.

Could you expand a bit more on how you, as a socialist in a country in close proximity to China, view China’s role in the region?

We need to separate out China’s role in Pakistan from the role it is playing more broadly in the region. As far as the regional situation is concerned, China maintains a very tense relationship with India. This has a historic dimension to it, but the tensions have been exacerbated by India’s rise and its close relations with the US, given the US’ policy of propping up India as a counterweight to China. These tensions played themselves out at the recent G20 Summit held in New Delhi, which US President Joe Biden was excited about while Chinese President Xi Jinping refused to attend in person. This gives you an idea of the kind of tensions emerging in the region.

Even here you can see how US-China tensions are becoming the axis around which coalitions and alliances are being formed and why, eventually, poor countries will have to pick a side given the influence superpowers have. In this sense, the emergence of a new pole is a good thing. Compared to a unipolar world, a multipolar world means more options for poor countries to chart out a relatively more independent path.

I want to return to the issue of multipolarity, but before that, could you tell us more about the role of China, compared with the US, in Pakistan?

Pakistan has a very specific and unique relationship with China. The two states have a long-standing friendship and I would go as far as to say that, for more than seven decades now, the two peoples have had a particularly friendly relationship. Pakistan has relied on China for loans and funds for major investments in its energy sector, among others. This means the relationship is increasingly skewed in China’s favour. And this skewed relationship also partly explains Pakistan's internal economic collapse. But, unlike the US, China has not asserted itself politically in Pakistan’s internal affairs. I think that is why many Pakistanis have a positive view of China, compared to the US.

The US does not invest in productive industries in Pakistan, such as the energy sector, or in building factories, but it does provide Pakistan with predatory loans. It has also been extremely active in domestic affairs through the presence of the CIA in Pakistan since the 1950s. In terms of deciding the political direction of the country, the US has had a huge impact, particularly due to its influence over the Pakistani military. The US has used the Pakistani military to fight proxy wars, such as in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, Pakistan had to deal with the terrorist activities of US-backed jihadis that were at war with the Soviet regime in Afghanistan. And for almost two decades now, Pakistan has had to endure US drone strikes. So, given the bad memories associated with the US, China appears quite benign and friendly. This is particularly, as I said, because for 70 years it has maintained generally close relations with the Pakistani state and not interfered in Pakistan’s internal political affairs.

The recent removal of Imran Khan as prime minister was portrayed in the Western media as a “blow to China”. How accurate is this? Has Pakistan become a kind of battleground for influence between the US and China?

In fact, China was not very happy with the Imran Khan government. Nor was the US. So, it was a very peculiar situation. Right towards the end of his government, Imran Khan claimed there was a US conspiracy to overthrow him. There were definitely signs coming from Washington that they were not happy with his government, so it cannot be completely ruled out.

But, more generally, there is an increasingly heated debate going on inside Pakistan regarding the direction the country should take. Anybody who is seen as too close to the US is viewed as an outsider and traitor. This is why the military and the generals, which have historically been seen as very close to the US, have lost a lot of legitimacy.

It is important to keep in mind that the average person in Pakistan has a very different perspective on China than the average individual in the West might have. The common perception in Pakistan is that the revolution in China was a fantastic achievement. For example, my parents, who have nothing to do with the left, are huge fans of Mao [Zedong] and of China. In Pakistan, there is a general tendency towards being pro-China, partially, as I said, because the US’ role in Pakistan has been particularly abhorrent. The other reason is that, up until the ’60s and ’70s, China was seen as less powerful economically than Pakistan. Seeing such a poor country rise to become so powerful has a certain appeal for many, not just in Pakistan but in many countries facing perpetual underdevelopment.

So, there is a lot of debate happening now, within the left and more broadly, over how China managed to become a powerhouse and where Pakistan went wrong. There are also discussions regarding Pakistan’s relationships with the US and China and if some kind of balance can be worked out. These are not abstract debates: former army chief of staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa categorically stated in a parliamentary session that the US had given Pakistan an ultimatum over whether to side with China or the US. This was then reported in the media. This debate is likely to escalate in the coming period. My sense is that the Pakistani ruling elites are generally more comfortable with the West, but the ground is shifting because of mass sentiment against the US and relatively popular perceptions of China.

Given this push towards having to take sides, do you see any possibilities for advancing a position of non-alignment with any bloc or emerging pole? And if not, do you think bridges can be built between anti-imperialist struggles across the different blocs, particularly taking into consideration that local movements might seek support from one or another competing power?

In terms of non-alignment, I think that possibility always exists. An attempt is already underway through the G77, which recently met in Havana. On the other hand, we should remember that even the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of the ’50s and ’60s was backed by the Soviet Union. So, in a very practical sense, it is almost impossible to be completely non-aligned, given the kinds of resources these emerging poles have. If a country wants to develop in a sovereign way, it will ultimately need to engage with these powers.

Non-alignment, particularly at the governmental level, should mean refusing to become a proxy for any one bloc, and engaging with other blocs on one’s own terms. But my assumption is still that any country that attempts such a policy will ultimately be abandoned by one or another bloc, meaning that country will — by default — be forced to engage more with the alternate bloc. Look at what is happening in Africa, where you have these anti-French military coups that are using the language of anti-imperialism, and are probably committed to some aspects of anti-imperialism. Given the extreme dependence of their country on Western capital, these regimes have had to look elsewhere for support. Where have they found it? In Russia, which recently hosted a Russia-Africa summit, where all these African leaders were present and [Russian president Vladimir] Putin spoke very highly of Africa-Russia relations, playing on the memory of Soviet support to African revolutions in the’ 60s and ’70s. This is the kind of imperative capitalism imposes on poor countries; to have to make very uncomfortable choices.

On the other hand, regarding the second part of your question, I think that we, as the left and social movements, can have more autonomy. We can refuse to be directly funded by other powers — although you are right to point out that, increasingly, a lot of movements have made that choice. As leftists, we can maintain a more sovereign, non-aligned position when it comes to our political line, working out the principal contradiction we face amid the world we live in, and understand that this can vary from country to country. In Pakistan’s case, our biggest problem remains the US. Should we break free from the US’ stranglehold — particularly if there was a socialist government in Pakistan — we would have few options other than to engage very seriously with China given our terrible relations with India and the fact that Afghanistan has been completely devastated. That is also why other countries have felt the need to build closer relations with China. These are the obligations that geopolitics impose on poor countries.

One thing worth noting is that when countries or movements do seek assistance from other powers, it can change the public perception of those countries. That happened in Pakistan with regards to Ukraine. Here, public opinion was sympathetic to Ukraine when Putin attacked Ukraine. But once it became clear that [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelensky was trying very hard to build closer ties with the West and began portraying Ukraine as an ally of the West, many people in Pakistan — and, in my reading, many parts of the Global South — completely lost interest in the Ukrainian resistance. The reason why public opinion turned against Ukraine, despite the fact it was still facing Russian aggression, was because people do not want to see Western interference in any part of the world given the history of US interventions. That is one of the tragic situations of the current crisis, but unfortunately no country can operate outside this context.

I assume something similar is the case with public opinion towards Taiwan? What is the left’s stance both towards Taiwan and the war in Ukraine?

When it comes to Taiwan, the left has a position that is more closely aligned with China’s — given it is such a blatant example of US interference, you will not find a leftist in Pakistan that refers to Taiwan in a positive way.

It is important to note that the Pakistani left, broadly speaking, partly evolved in conjunction with the Chinese revolution; the Chinese revolution had a huge ideological impact on the Pakistani left. Moreover, one of the big common concerns for the left in Pakistan, and Asia, is the question of national sovereignty — something that is not the case, from my experience, when it comes to the left in Europe or the US. There, the idea is that a working class revolution will immediately spread internationally and do away with the idea of the nation. Here it is very different due to the history of nation-states being destroyed and the lack of real sovereignty. Anytime any country seeks to assert its sovereign power, an imperialist-backed counterrevolution has emerged, as we saw after the Chinese revolution and with the Korean war. For this reason, in the non-European world, state sovereignty and socialism are not seen as contradictory. Rather, building socialism means asserting state sovereignty and building up the state’s capacities to resist imperialist interference.

One point I would like to add is this: I think economic national sovereignty will become an increasingly important issue in the coming years. It is an issue that makes people on the left very uncomfortable. But more and more countries are talking about economic sovereignty — in Latin America, Africa and Asia. After the complete destruction wrought by neoliberalism, the left needs to be prepared to intellectually engage with this idea, rather than dismiss it outright. With the left lacking mass-based parties, we are likely to see rising expressions of anger against the economic system and imperialism take the form of economic nationalism. We, as the left, will have to find ways to engage with this, just like socialists in the Global South in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s had to engage with anti-colonialist movements. These movements also contained ideas of nationalism, state-building, state-led economic industrialisation, etc. But that was the terrain on which everybody had to operate; refusal to do so meant forfeiting that terrain to reactionary and authoritarian forces. The left today is in a similar situation.

Returning to your question: when it comes to the left’s position on Ukraine, things are far more complicated than compared with Taiwan. There was initially a general position on the left — correct in my opinion — that said Ukraine has the right to defend itself; that it has the right to self-determination. On the other hand, it is clear that when the US gives billions in aid and weapons to a country, it is not doing this for “democracy” but rather for its own geostrategic interests. We have seen the US derail democracy in our part of the world time and again; we have seen this pattern of military support in our part of the world time and again. So, as US interference has increased, the left’s position has shifted from supporting Ukraine to calling for a negotiated solution, opposing NATO membership for Ukraine and supporting the anti-war movement inside Russia, all with aim of ensuring the war does not turn into a flashpoint for geostrategic games between the US and Russia.

Finally, I would like to return to the issue of multipolarity. In light of everything you have set out, on the one hand the positive perceptions regarding China but, on the other, the fact that much of the remaining space left open by the US’s decline has been filled by right-wing authoritarian regimes, how should the left view the prospects for a multipolar world?

You are right, the way you framed it is absolutely correct: that is the situation we face and those are the cards that history has dealt us. There is definitely a new pole — or maybe multiple poles — emerging and the opening up of space for progress. At the same time, many of the governments that have filled that space are not progressive. China is perhaps the exception, given the Communist Party of China claims to be progressive, but the others do not even claim to be progressive. So, there is that contradiction, that tension, that will have to be worked out.

At the moment, all we can confidently say is that the US is on the decline; that its power to economically punish countries is declining, but is not completely gone. The US can still strangle economies. That is partly why Maduro has visited Beijing so many times in the past few years, precisely because US sanctions are hurting Venezuela's economy. Moreover, while the US’ economic decline is very serious, its military power is far superior to any other country. That is why there are fears that it may turn to its military might to offset its declining power.

The general mass consciousness of our era is one of war: there is this sense the world over that we are heading towards some kind of large-scale conflict. Whether it becomes a hot war or remains an escalating cold war will have to be seen, but that anxiety definitely exists and shapes mass consciousness. This is the world in which countries of the Global South, whether governed by progressive or authoritarian forces, are having to make decisions.

Part of the challenge for progressive movements is how to make sense of all these contradictions? On the one hand, there are more opportunities today for building alliances on the global stage compared to 30 years ago, when almost no country opposed the First Gulf War, the bombing of Serbia, the intervention in Libya, etc: the existence of an alternative pole means that at least some limits have been placed on US imperial power — that is good. On the other hand, we know that the goal of left movements, in particular socialists and Marxists, is the emancipation of humanity — something we are still a long way from achieving — yet some of these new emerging poles have governments that maintain very little commitments to human rights or emancipation.

The challenge we face is how do we strike a balance between the positive — in terms of the spaces for alliances that have opened up — while acknowledging the negative and continuing to fight for a left agenda? We need to be able to grasp the emancipatory potential of this moment of multipolarity while never forgetting that achieving our goals requires mass mobilisation and organisation orientated towards socialism and human emancipation. This means that the emerging blocs can not simply become a partnership with an imperialist power; rather within these emerging blocs we will need to continue waging our anti-imperialist and emancipatory struggles for freedom.