China’s Queen, Pakistan’s Pawn

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China’s Queen, Pakistan’s Pawn

China and Pakistan claim to be all-weather friends. But would a real friend just watch the other implode?

This year is the official China-Pakistan Friendship Year. But even before 2011 got underway, Pakistan and China had long seen each other as all-weather friends. And as Pakistan has faced an international diplomatic storm after Osama bin Laden was killed deep inside Pakistani territory, China has certainly appeared to live up to expectations.

While the United States and many European countries have demanded answers to difficult questions over the extent of the complicity of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment in providing a safe haven to bin Laden, China has steadfastly stood by its friend, and even applauded its efforts in fighting terrorism.

Indeed, as China and Pakistan celebrated 60 years of diplomatic relations this month, the Chinese Ambassador in Pakistan had some heartwarming words to describe ties. His words are worth quoting at some length: ‘Today’s China-Pakistan friendship has transformed into a strong strategic partnership, robust economic cooperation and ever closer people to people connections. This legendary relationship is based on mutual trust and understanding and resonates in the hearts of the peoples. We feel other’s pain and take proud (sic) of each other’s achievements. And we respect each other’s core interests and speak aloud for each other when one is unduly treated. In a nutshell, we are good neighbors, close friends, trusted partners and dear brothers.’ (emphasis added)

It seems the relationship is deeply symbiotic, growing from common security concerns and core interests. While the United States may have provided billions of dollars in aid for Pakistan—far more than China—the strategic relationship between Beijing and Islamabad is still much tighter. Certainly, Pakistan is grateful for the transfer of nuclear weapons material and designs, as well as for the experience of being present at Lop Nor during Chinese nuclear tests.

Nuclear weapons are seen by Pakistan as providing it with the ‘oxygen’ it needs to survive. In addition, Islamabad has been able to extract multiple benefits from their very presence. From Pakistan’s perspective, nuclear weapons mean that with a single stroke, it has managed to rein in big neighbour India, while simultaneously increasing relevance to the United States.

For China, too, the relationship with Pakistan has managed to complicate US involvement in the region, allowing it to engage in some big power politics while boxing India into South Asia. Pakistan has proven to be a worthy proxy for China as it continues its own march towards consolidating its national strength. International relations is usually likened to a game of chess, and the United States is again grappling with how to tackle a pawn that is so well protected by the queen.

All this leaves me wondering whether China understands that genuine friends must not only stand with each other in good times, but should help each other see their warts and rectify their mistakes.

The use of terror by Pakistan as a foreign policy tool against India and the United States might have served Chinese interests, but it’s slowly consuming Pakistan itself. Will the all-weather friend finally decide to gently point this out when Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani travels to Beijing this week to celebrate the year of friendship?