This month, an intricate pas de deux took places between two putatively ‘all weather’ allies, Pakistan and China. In the wake of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s visit to Beijing, Pakistani Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar claimed that Pakistan was prepared to turn over the Gwadar naval facility on the Arabian Sea to China for use as a naval base. Within hours of his statement, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied that any such offer had been made or accepted. Earlier, while commemorating the Pakistan-China nexus, Gilani had made the most bizarre statement, announcing that Pakistan and China were like two countries but one nation.
What inferences should be made about Gilani's abrupt, high-profile visit to Beijing, and subsequently, Chaudhry's maladroit public statement? Despite the contretemps involving Gwadar, the visit wasn’t without its benefits. China did actually promise to sell Pakistan 50 JF-17 Thunder multirole combat aircraft. Both the visit and the attempt to curry favour in Beijing through the offer of port facilities were components of a strategy to remind the United States that Pakistan, while beleaguered, isn’t bereft of allies. Furthermore, this reminder of its closeness with China also comes at a time when the United States is actively contemplating drawing down its forces in Afghanistan and thereby reducing its dependence on Pakistan for logistical support to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
Why was such a reminder deemed necessary? Largely because Pakistan's politico-military elite has convinced itself that the United States is a fickle ally and will simply terminate its economic and military commitments to Pakistan once the exigency of the Afghan crisis is over. Publicly underscoring its long-term relationship with China, as well as its durability and robustness, was seen as a signal to the Americans that in the wake of their withdrawal (and possible abandonment of Pakistan), China’s diplomatic and military footprint in the region could easily expand.
The calculations of Pakistan's politic-military establishment as far as their courting of China is concerned are fairly obvious. However, as M.J. Akbar—one of India's most talented and thoughtful journalists—wondered in an editorial in India Today last week, would the Chinese leadership be so desirous of this close embrace of Pakistan? China has enough trouble quelling restive minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet. Does it really want to aspire to a tighter embrace of an ally whose troubles are legion?