While US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been visiting India this week, US ties with Pakistan have taken a new, downward twist with the decision by the US Justice Department to charge two men with being in the pay of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.
The last few months have been tumultuous for US-Pakistan relations, with the recent halting of $800 million* in military aid marking a new low. And, as Pakistan looks for support elsewhere, it seems inevitable that China will be waiting in the wings to capitalise on the spat. All this raises the question of how Clinton’s hosts will cope with the China-Pakistan alliance at a time when Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are all already being slowly drawn into China’s orbit.
But back to the US decision for a moment – was it a strategic mistake to push Pakistan toward China with the aid suspension announcement? From a domestic political perspective, with the United States embroiled in a partisan budget battle, the Obama administration may have had little choice – US taxpayers are understandably reluctant to keep sending vast sums of money to a government that has proved ineffective at best, and duplicitous at worst. That Osama bin Laden was able to take refuge for so long in Pakistani territory was perhaps the final straw. Still, the rank and file Pakistani military will no doubt see the suspension of aid as an affront at a time when they are fighting bloody battles in Waziristan as part of what many of them perceive as ‘America’s War.’
China, without the same domestic pressures (or economic constraints, one might add) that the United States faces at the moment, is able to offer a shoulder for Pakistan to cry on. As the Pakistani prime minister recently noted, China is an 'all-weather friend' – he didn’t add ‘not like those fickle Americans,’ but that was clearly the implication.
Of course the current tensions between the United States and Pakistan aren’t what first sparked Pakistan into drawing nearer to China. As The Financial Times noted in a fascinating piece recently, there have been numerous ongoing efforts by China to deepen its relationship with Pakistan militarily and politically: dam construction on sensitive river systems, Chinese construction of the Arabian Sea port at Gwadar, increased sales of military hardware to Pakistan and (perhaps most sensitive for India) claims by the Indian military that Chinese troops are stationed along the Kashmiri Line of Control.
All of this has significant implications for the future of US-Pakistan relations, and a Pakistan less reliant on the United States must make India extremely nervous. China now stands as a clear rival to Indian influence in Nepal, where it has built major cross-border highways from Tibet, and is in the process of extending its rail network to Kathmandu. The same is true of Bangladesh, where China is assisting in the development of a deep-sea port at Chittagong. In Sri Lanka, that other Indian backyard, China is now the country’s largest aid donor, and is helping to build a major new port terminal at Hambantota. And, as the West has put pressure on India to be firmer with the military junta in Burma, China has enjoyed free rein there.
India may be holding the US ever-closer, but it can’t be pleasant to watch itself slowly, but surely, encircled. And while the United States may seek to improve its relations with India, it faces its own economic and military limitations on the extent to which it can influence events in South Asia.
India now accounts for 9 percent of global arms purchases, and has increased its defence budget by around 11 per cent year on year. It’s a trend that a wary Delhi is likely to continue.
*Corrected from $800 billion.
Stewart Watters is an editorial assistant with The Diplomat