Trans-Pacific View

What Donald Trump’s Budget Means for Pakistan

Cuts to the U.S. State Department will also impact the U.S.-Pakistan alliance.

What Donald Trump’s Budget Means for Pakistan
Credit: Flickr/ Gage Skidmore

President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal has made significant waves in the United States, drawing condemnation from several Republicans in addition to the rival Democrats. However, the budget is being received well by his supporters among the general public, who see it as another campaign promise fulfilled by the controversial leader.

The budget has been lambasted by political and public figures for forcing austerity on a number of key federal bodies, such as the State Department, USAID, PBS, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Energy Department. In addition, the plan also calls for significant cuts to American contributions toward the World Bank and the United Nations.

The capital salvaged from these measures will not be diverted toward public welfare, but will instead be channeled to the U.S. military which already enjoys the largest defense budget in the world at a whopping $600 billion, accounting for 54 percent of all federal discretionary spending. Border security with Mexico is also expected to be strengthened utilizing these funds.

American funding for overseas allies will also be affected by the State Department’s hampered capabilities, as aid packages are cut and foreign military funding programs are converted from grant- to loan-based schemes. Israel is likely to be the only country which will retain its full $3.1 billion package and its title as the single largest recipient of U.S. aid, in line with the proposals highlighted in the new plan.

Due to the proposed cuts to the State Department’s available resources, which would strip it of 28 percent of its existing budget, it’s very probable that the department will have to downsize considerably. Among the first positions likely to be dissolved will be the offices of the special representatives. These individuals usually offer policy, aid, and liaison services in important problem areas that the United States is involved in; at the moment, the most important offices of the special representatives cover areas including the AfPak Region, North Korea policy, and nuclear non-proliferation.

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The dissolution of the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan will severely hamper Pakistan’s ability to effectively coordinate with the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan whilst also resulting in the loss of a precious conduit for Pakistani demands and concerns to Washington. The resulting lapse of effective and fluid communication through a dedicated representative could further complicate the U.S.-Pakistan relationship over Afghanistan, which is already strained due to mutual concerns about apparent disregard for each other’s strategic goals in the region.

The absence of a dedicated State Department official overseeing the AfPak region will also result in regional interests being neglected. The portfolio would likely be passed on to the office of the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, which at the moment is a candidate for dissolution itself, as an additional charge.

The budget cuts will also impact military cooperation. Last year, Congress’ decision to decline American financing for F-16s under the Foreign Military Funding program led Pakistan to abandon the acquisition entirely and look to other available options. Among these options, China, as a longstanding ally, was no surprise; however, consideration for Russian military aircraft was a first for Pakistan, which has traditionally been wary of Moscow’s cozy relations with rival India. However, various diplomatic overtures have led to a thaw in relations in the last decade, eventually culminating in the abrogation of Russia’s self-imposed ban on arms sales to Pakistan.

With American aid already declining steadily for the past several years, any further cuts could push Pakistan further away from the United States. The country would consequently embed itself more firmly in the Chinese camp as Beijing courts significant influence through record-breaking investment, which has reinvigorated the Pakistani economy.

Russia may also choose to capitalize on this scenario as a suitable contingency, as its own relationship with India suffers due to the sustained loss of lucrative arms deals to American firms amid a phase of rapid confidence-building between Washington and New Delhi.

In the last two years, Pakistan and Russia have already reached significant landmarks in their bilateral relationship. The head of Russia’s FSB visited Pakistan for the first time in 14 years, followed by Russia’s joint training exercise with Pakistan, which went ahead despite Indian pressure to withdraw after the Uri attack.

Following last year’s cancellation, reports also suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to visit Pakistan in mid-2017 to inaugurate a $2 billion oil pipeline being constructed by a Russian firm. The visit may serve as a breakthrough and open the doors to greater military and economic cooperation between the countries.

In conclusion, although Trump’s budget proposal has yet to be ratified by Congress, the implications that it poses for Pakistan might result in expediting the country’s shift toward regional powers at the expense maintaining its alliance with the United States, which has been plagued by problems for several years now. This cycle of improving and deteriorating relations is nothing out of the routine, however, as both countries have remained surprisingly pragmatic in working intensely in pursuit of common goals despite divergent expectations in their bilateral relationship.

Muhammad Zarrar Saeed works at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI). He holds a BS in international relations from Bahria University Islamabad and has previously worked with the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Strategic Studies Institute Islamabad.