Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani starts an official four-day visit to China today. But while the formal reason is to celebrate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, the real focus is bound to be on how Pakistan can shore up ties with its most reliable ally after Osama bin Laden was found on Islamabad’s doorstep. Contrary to what some might think, such meetings could be a good thing, because the United States will need China’s help to stabilize its troubled partner.
Since September 11, US officials have tried to constrain Pakistani support for the Taliban and other terrorist groups, while relying heavily on its backing for the military campaign against al-Qaeda. But bilateral ties have remained tense, because of both Pakistan’s assistance to Islamist extremists and popular Pakistani anger over US drone attacks along the Afghan-Pakistani border, which many Pakistanis believe stoke the terrorist danger in their country.
No amount of economic aid by the Obama administration has been able to ease Pakistani concerns over US counterterrorist policies and Washington’s ties with India, with opinion polls showing that Pakistanis now overwhelmingly view China more favorably than the United States. Indeed, Americans are only shielded from the harsh reality of Pakistan’s views by distance and by the fact that its ruling coalition is led by the Western-oriented Pakistan People’s Party, which has traditionally enjoyed good ties with the United States. The opposition parties are generally, let’s say, less well-disposed toward Washington.
Enter China, whose officials are quick to defend Pakistani policies, including its commitment to counterterrorism efforts—even after the bin Laden affair. While US officials have indicated that they couldn’t trust their Pakistani counterparts with advance news of the raid, the Chinese government has called for even greater support for Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts as well as respect for its sovereignty.
Such views are based on a history of security cooperation. China has become one of Pakistan’s leading suppliers of conventional arms, and as well as selling weapons systems such as the Chengdu J-10 fighter planes and Zulfiquar class F-22P frigates, Chinese and Pakistani firms now engage in the joint production of important military hardware, such as the JF17 Thunder (FC-1 Fierce Dragon) fighter. Bilateral security cooperation has also extended to include the training of Pakistani defense personnel, the sharing of military intelligence, and the holding of joint military and counterterrorist exercises.
But perhaps most importantly in Pakistani eyes, the Chinese have, unlike the Americans, provided Pakistan with weapons that Islamabad can use against India. Chinese strategists, for their part, are happy to indulge Pakistan’s concerns over New Delhi as a way to keep a rising India distracted.
Beijing’s most significant assistance, though, came in the 1980s and 1990s, when China transferred considerable nuclear technology to Pakistan, allegedly including the designs for a nuclear bomb as well as the components to make it. China has certainly improved its nonproliferation policies in recent decades. However, it remains the only major nuclear power willing to help Pakistan to develop its civilian nuclear energy sector, providing technical and other dual-use assistance that could potentially assist Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. In fact, just this month yet another Chinese-made nuclear reactor, based at the Chashma Nuclear Power Plant, began operations.
But it’s not just military assistance that has left Pakistan so well-disposed toward China—Beijing also plays an important role in the Pakistani economy. Bilateral trade remains modest at less than $10 billion annually, and Beijing provides much less economic assistance than Washington, but thousands of Chinese nationals—engineers, advisors, laborers, and others—work in Pakistan.
Chinese firms have invested heavily in Pakistan’s infrastructure projects such as road networks, electric power generation, and telecommunications. This focus on infrastructure reflects the Chinese perception that Pakistan serves as a key energy and trade conduit linking China with Central Asia and the Middle East. All of this assistance from Beijing comes with fewer strings attached than Washington tends to add.
The official Chinese position is that China’s aid is for peaceful purposes, meets Pakistan’s demonstrable need for more civilian energy, involves only legally permissible items, and escapes Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) restrictions because it began before Beijing joined that body. Unofficially, Chinese representatives argue that, since the United States and other countries are waiving NSG rules to provide India with nuclear assistance, Beijing has the right to provide comparable aid to Pakistan.
The United States, in contrast, can be painted as a villain—US opposition to Chinese-Pakistan civil nuclear cooperation makes it appear as if Washington is indifferent to Pakistan’s genuine energy needs, even as it faces a major shortage of electricity and the additional nuclear plants would help relieve this shortfall.
Yet although the United States must continue to oppose disruptive Chinese nuclear assistance to Pakistan, US policymakers should still be much more enthusiastic about encouraging China to assume a greater role in supporting Pakistan’s economic development and conventional military power.
Aside from their differences over nuclear nonproliferation, China has generally supported US policies toward Pakistan, even if Chinese spokespeople don’t trumpet this fact. And while the Chinese government has parried Western pressure and repeatedly refused to contribute even logistical support to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, its leaders don’t challenge the legitimacy of the NATO military operations there. Indeed, they want the alliance to continue to promote the country’s economic and political reconstruction as well as protect China’s growing investment in Afghanistan’s natural resources—even if they have yet to endorse a long-term Western military presence in their region.
Like the Americans, Chinese leaders are also concerned about Pakistani links with terrorism, whatever they say publicly. The difference with China is that disagreements are normally expressed in private, as Beijing relies on its ties with the Pakistani government and military to dissuade Islamist terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan from attacking Chinese targets or from assisting Uighur militants seeking to weaken Beijing’s hold over Xinjiang. Chinese officials have actually repeatedly complained to their Pakistani counterparts about the presence of East Turkestan Islamic Movement cells reportedly based in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
In return, Pakistani leaders have strived to appear responsive to Chinese concerns, more so than with US complaints. Since assuming office in September 2008, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zaradari has traveled to Beijing about once every three months, largely to reassure Chinese policymakers who presumably preferred dealing with his authoritarian predecessor, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Meanwhile, if the United States and NATO were to withdraw from Afghanistan, Chinese officials would presumably seek to leverage their ties with Pakistan’s security forces and political parties to act as mediators with the Taliban to work out a deal whereby the Taliban would defend the China commercial and strategic interests in Afghanistan. According to media reports, Pakistani leaders are already calling on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to switch his primary allegiance from Washington to Beijing. Yet the reality is that Chinese officials would prefer if Western governments continued bearing the costs of making Afghanistan safe and profitable for Chinese investors.
Although NATO has committed to fulfilling China’s wishes for the next few years, the growing strains between Washington and Islamabad will require Beijing to compensate by playing a greater role in keeping Pakistan economically viable and militarily secure. Beijing certainly has sufficient capabilities and interests to warrant increasing its efforts.
A half-century of close collaboration between Chinese and Pakistan gives Beijing sufficient weight in Islamabad to pressure Pakistan’s military and intelligence services to curtail their support for Islamist extremists. In the past, China has used its ties with Pakistan’s security forces to suppress militant groups that have attacked Chinese workers in Pakistan or supported Uighur separatists.
So far, China hasn’t employed its influence to promote security sector reform, the rule of law, or other needed reforms. Yet although we (sadly) can’t expect China’s authoritarian leaders to promote democracy and human rights in Pakistan, the United States and its allies might still be able to persuade Chinese policymakers that Pakistan needs to reform its security sector to become a stable and prosperous country.
As long as Pakistan’s military and intelligence forces indulge in terrorist ties, the country will remain a potential threat not just to the United States and its allies, but to China as well. It’s up to Beijing now to make Islamabad see the error of its ways.