China’s senior foreign policymaker, Dai Bingguo, spent the last few days in Islamabad assessing conditions in the country, as well as the state of China-Pakistan relations. He also pledged China’s continued economic and security assistance to Pakistan, misleading some Pakistanis into thinking that Beijing will ride to their rescue. The reality, though, is that the Chinese government has made clear in past crises that, while it seeks close ties with Pakistan, Beijing is unwilling to bankroll a break between Islamabad and Washington.
The Pakistani situation is perhaps the most complex it has ever been. Islamabad’s ties with the United States and NATO are strained over border clashes, terrorism, and other issues. Meanwhile, Islamabad itself has been swept up with rumors of yet another military coup. All this chaos and uncertainty is calling into question Beijing’s geopolitical plans for Afghanistan and the rest of South Asia.
Its been an annus horribilis for Pakistani-U.S. relations, beginning in January with the Raymond Davis affair, the dispute over the elevated U.S. drone attacks on Pakistani territory, the May 2 Special Forces attack on bin Laden’s compound at Abbottabad in central Pakistan, the September attacks by a Pakistani-linked terrorist group against the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and finally the November 26 cross-border clash in which NATO forces killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers and wounded many others.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The Pakistani government has retaliated for the latest incident by closing the two Afghan-Pakistani border crossings at Chaman and Torkham to NATO’s supply convoys, giving U.S. personnel 15 days to vacate an air base in Balochistan used to assist drone attacks against insurgents and terrorists in northwest Pakistan, and suspending certain joint activities. Pakistan also withdrew Pakistani liaison officers from the Afghan-Pakistan border coordination centers and NATO headquarters in Kabul, boycotted the December 5 Bonn conference on Afghanistan, reinforced its border defenses, relaxed its rules of engagement, and launched a comprehensive review of Pakistan’s security cooperation with NATO and the United States.
At home, the Pakistani military leadership and the Zardari government have come into open confrontation, with each accusing members of the other institution of plotting against it. The military forced the dismissal of the Pakistani Ambassador to Washington a few weeks ago over a leaked memo that worried about the prospects of a coup. The day before Dai’s arrival, Gilani told the National Assembly that, "Conspiracies are being hatched to pack up an elected government."
Dai, an expert on South Asian affairs, visited Islamabad as a representative of Chinese President Hu Jintao, nominally to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Sino-Pakistan diplomatic relations and the closing of the Year of China-Pakistan friendship. As State Councillor, Dai outranks Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.
The Chinese government has some of its closest allies within Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishments. Dai conferred “for some time” with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Gen. Khalid Shameem Wynne. The details of their discussion weren’t released in public, but Beijing probably wouldn’t welcome a coup at this troubled time.
After all, economic ties between China and Pakistan continue to develop, with two-way trade now exceeding $10 billion. Chinese firms have made substantial investments in Pakistan’s defense industry, energy, engineering, information technology, mining, telecommunications, as well as banking, transportation, and other infrastructure sectors. China provides technical assistance in such areas as agricultural production, environmental protection, natural resource exploitation, and outer space research. Beijing particularly favors high-profile mega projects such the Karakorum Highway, Gwadar Port, Taxila Heavy Mechanical Complex, Chashma Nuclear Power Plant, Jinnah Sports Stadium and Pakistan-China Friendship Centre.