China Power

Pakistan’s Stealthy China Play

Pakistan is accused of giving China access to a downed US stealth helicopter. Why would it have done it?

US intelligence analysts believe that Pakistan allowed Chinese engineers to examine the remains of a secret stealth helicopter destroyed during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the Financial Times reported Sunday.  Coming on the heels of several reports of strained relations between China and Pakistan, this suggests that historically close ties have survived recent tensions – or that Pakistan is attempting to repair them.

The story is plausible – Pakistan’s ties with China have historically been very close. Although Pakistan’s relations with the United States have soured over the past few years, hitting a low point after the raid, it’s probably wrong to see the helicopter incident as payback: in recent years the country has sought to do favors for the larger-wealthier state as it struggles to avoid being seen as a poor cousin.  But China’s patience may be running out.

The existence of the helicopter, a modified Black Hawk, was unknown before pictures of the tail surfaced online following the raid. The Special Ops team had abandoned the vehicle after it was damaged in landing, blowing it up to protect the top secret technology. The tail survived, carrying modified rotor blades and an unknown coating thought to reflect radar. The FT report said that Chinese teams had photographed the remains and taken samples of the coating.

The US demonstrated a clear interest in the wreck, with Sen. John Kerry negotiating its return in May.  According yesterday’s FT article, the United States had made a direct request that China not be allowed to examine it. 

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Cheng Xiaohe, an expert on the China-Pakistan relationship at Beijing People’s University, told me that he found the allegation plausible. ‘The two countries have a very strong tradition to exchange some kind of intelligence, and on the helicopter I think it’s possible,’ he said. Pakistan was one of the first countries outside the Communist world to recognize the People’s Republic, in 1950, and they have been brought closer by mutual suspicion of India. In recent years, China has come to see Pakistan as a valuable strategic ally that could provide access to the Arabian Sea, as well as a necessary ally against Muslim separatists in the border region of Xinjiang.

Cheng described Pakistan as an important player in Chinese diplomacy. ‘Pakistan has always stood to support China when China was in need, for example, after June 4 Pakistan was a strong supporter of China,’ Cheng said, referring to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. ‘Also, Pakistan is a valuable asset when China deals with India.’

Over the last few years, however, China has come to see the alliance as a ‘one-way relationship,’ Cheng said. While China has supplied military technology, infrastructure, and investment in Pakistan, Chinese businesses have found it hard to profit as the country becomes chaotic. Like the United States, Cheng said, Chinese policymakers have become convinced that the Pakistani government is doing little to help China’s campaign against Islamic militants.

Pakistan, however, has shown great eagerness to buddy up with China, referring to it as the nation’s ‘closest friend’ and ‘brother’ – and, in a strange incident, announced plans to establish a Chinese naval base in Pakistan apparently without the knowledge of the Chinese government.

If the helicopter was intended to shore up ties with China, it seems to have been outweighed by other issues – China blamed training camps in Pakistan for the attacks in Xinjiang earlier this month, while the helicopter wreckage was returned to the United States in May.  Perhaps, as Cheng said, ‘Pakistan has a lot of potential to render significant strategic support in the future – but not now.’