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.
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.
During Dai’s visit, the two governments furthered their goal of expanding bilateral economic ties by signing a free-trade agreement (establishing the China-Pakistan Free Trade area), an accord to upgrade the Karakoram Highway, and a $1.6 billion (10 billion RMB) currency swap agreement between Bank of China and the State Bank of Pakistan. The latter would allow Chinese and Pakistanis to use both rupees and yuan as exchangeable currencies. In addition to the $250 million Chinese credit for upgrading and realigning the Karakoram Highway, the Chinese provided a $464 million loan to modernize the Guddu power plant.
Some of these deals fell under the rubric of an extension of the Sino-Pakistani Five-Year Economic Cooperation Plan. They also appear to have made further progress in realizing China’s offer to construct additional nuclear power plants in Pakistan, but this controversial assistance isn’t being publicized.
In terms of future opportunities, the Chinese government is also seeking to attract Pakistani investment to China’s Xinjiang Province, which borders Pakistan and several Central Asian countries, by offering Pakistani firms a five-year tax waiver on their operations. The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China is preparing to organize a consortium to finance a $1.2 billion Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. A contribution of this magnitude would be six times greater than the $300 million China provided to construct Pakistan's Gadwar Port, and expectations are that the Chinese will eventually build a railway and supporting infrastructure between China and Pakistan.
All this has been welcomed in Pakistan. An upbeat Christmas Day editorial in a leading Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, said that the visit and other evidence of Sino-Pakistani cooperation would “provide the hope that the government is finally realizing that in the present day world of hostile and indifferent Western powers and the U.S., our survival lies in further strengthening our friendship with this time-tested friend.” The paper reviewed all the economic and other help China has provided Pakistan “without asking for anything in return, reminded us of how friends behave.” It added that, “The U.S. could do well to take a leaf out of China's book in its dealing with Pakistan.”
Pakistani leaders certainly seemed disposed to align themselves with China as much as Beijing permits. Both Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari effusively praised China’s support for Pakistani efforts to safeguard their country’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. They also affirmed a complete convergence of the two governments’ positions on foreign economic and security issues. Gilani pledged Pakistani backing for China’s position on all core issues, adding that, “We support One China policy and are totally committed to upholding of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The prime minister ended his remarks by declaring that: “Pakistan will remain a true and steadfast friend of the great Chinese nation. Long live Pakistan-China friendship.”
Dai responded in an equally positive tone, expressing gratitude for Islamabad’s positions on Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang and affirming firm support for Pakistan’s “national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He stressed the need for both governments to further strengthen strategic coordination and practical cooperation “in all fields including infrastructure, agriculture reconstruction and energy, expand people-to-people and cultural exchanges and security cooperation.”
Yet despite Dai’s kind words, op-ed authors and other commentators need to realize that China’s help to Pakistan has always remained circumscribed. Various Pakistanis have repeatedly proposed that China adopt their country as its new guardian, but Beijing has always rejected this poisoned chalice.
In reality, China has provided only limited economic and security assistance, targeted to help Pakistan meet key needs that also coincide with Chinese interests, but not the kind of comprehensive economic and security assistance that Pakistan pines for. Beijing’s help remains considerably less than that provided by the reviled United States.
Thanks to its status as a nuclear-armed state inundated by Islamist terrorists, Pakistan has been able to extract “strategic rent” from the United States, which has provided Islamabad about $20 billion in the last decade. Beijing has no desire to replace Washington as Pakistan’s new bankroller, and has instead provided cleverly targeted assistance in niche areas such as military and nuclear technology, as well as support for infrastructure projects that benefit China.
Furthermore, reports persist that Chinese leaders remain concerned about Pakistanis’ link with terrorism, and they may not be fully satisfied with repeated Pakistani assertions that Islamabad will use its influence and power to keep Islamist militants away from Chinese targets.
Chinese officials have traditionally considered Pakistan a counterweight to India in South Asia, but Beijing also isn’t eager to drive India into closer alignment with the United States. Dai pointedly noted that “We want to intensify amicable and cooperative relations with Pakistan and other neighboring countries.” Gilani reassuringly said that Pakistan also seeks to improve its relations with India and find a peaceful solution to all outstanding issues, citing the “importance to the ongoing dialogue process with India and hope that it would be productive and result-oriented.”
Although they haven’t endorsed a permanent Western military presence in Afghanistan, Chinese officials would like NATO forces to remain in that country for a few more years in order to make China’s border and investment in that country more secure. Dai denied any exclusionary ambitions when he said that, “China supports Pakistan in developing friendly relations with other countries on the basis of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit.”
And Beijing also wants Islamabad to play an active role in the Afghan peace process since China sees Pakistan as its main conduit to influence developments in Afghanistan. For example, Dai called on the international community to support Pakistan’s regional security role since Pakistan “has considerable influence in Afghanistan, which must be taken into consideration by those trying to resolve the (Afghan) crisis.”
Whether they like it or not, Pakistani leaders will have to maintain ties with the United States rather than try to cozy up to China in an alliance that simply doesn’t exist.