For Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s first visit, what Pakistan keenly sought was a show of mutual adoration, along with pledges to rejuvenate the undying friendship both nations love to proclaim. Certainly, Pakistan’s intentions were in abundant evidence for Li’s welcome, which started with his plane being ushered in by Pakistani fighter aircraft and an airport reception that brought out the country’s entire civilian and military leadership.
The visit offers an excellent insight into the kind of relations Pakistan has with its northeastern neighbor. And the Chinese premier wasted no time in proclaiming the adoration as mutual. At a luncheon hosted in his honor the premier defined his visit as a clear message to the international community that whatever direction world affairs may take, China’s ties with Pakistan will only flourish and strengthen.
That statement would have resonated a tad stronger had Li not visited India just prior. The only true regional power competitor with China, India has had a long and tense rivalry with Pakistan, creating a delicate situation for the three countries.
Li’s visit comes at a critical point for both the region and for the U.S., which remains a strategically vital player.
The U.S. may be eager to end large-scale operations in Afghanistan, but the only practical way to withdraw its assets in that country demands Pakistan’s cooperation. But Pakistan’s incoming prime minister Nawaz Sharif has already issued statements calling for dialogue as a solution to the problem of extremists. He also appears closer to the Middle East and China than to the U.S. Indeed, Westerners probably remember Sharif as the prime minister who defied tremendous U.S. pressure to conduct a nuclear test in May 28, 1998, in response to India’s own test.
Still, times have changed and the new Pakistani government takes power at a time when the country is grappling with an extreme energy crisis, ongoing violence and a struggling economy. Pakistan is in dire need of developmental and financial support.
Of course, in China it sees the second option it had longed for during the War on Terror. But it should be careful. Experts believe that the governments of China and Pakistan exaggerate the strength of their ties. For instance, although the Chinese premier reiterated that bilateral trade would rise from the current $12 billion to $15 billion, out of the $29 billion in foreign investment Pakistan has received during the last decade, only $0.8 billion came from China. In contrast, the U.S. provided $7.7 billion. And this is the same China that has become the largest investor in the region, investing nearly $202 billion in Asia for the period 2004-2010.
At a time when the world’s largest economies are investing heavily in their emerging neighbors – the U.S. in Latin America, for instance, or the EU in Eastern Europe – Pakistan’s BFF is offering only platitudes and rhetoric.
The situation has been complicated by a recent video, apparently released by the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), which shows children being trained at what appears to be a terrorist camp in the Waziristan area of Pakistan. The Chinese government blames the ETIM for several acts of terror in China and has expressed rising concerns about ETIM sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is likely none too pleased at the idea of Pakistan handing over the Gwadar port operation to China or at the inauguration of a gas pipeline between Pakistan and Iran. These events suggest a shift in the policies Islamabad developed during its alliance with Washington.
So Pakistan faces the dilemma of picking the right side at a crucial juncture. Yet history shows it has the ability to do just that. Pakistan’s role in helping bring the U.S. and China together during Nixon’s 1972 visit is a great example of how this mortal has survived the clashes of Titans for almost seven decades now. It will need to draw on all that experience for the years to come.
Malik Ayub Sumbal is an award-winning journalist based in Islamabad.