Although Barack Obama and Xi Jinping sported wide grins and open collars at a June summit in California, the forced collegial atmosphere didn’t pass the smell test. “There is enormous scope for future cooperation between China and the U.S.” President Xi told skeptical reporters at a press conference following the bilateral meeting.
The cordial rhetoric proved unconvincing to the assembled press corps, which eagerly peppered the two presidents with questions over their burgeoning naval rivalry in the Pacific, conflicts over North Korea’s nuclear aspirations and cyber security.
Still, despite their competition in most areas of foreign policy, with NATO troops scheduled to begin phased withdrawals from Afghanistan early next year, the U.S. and China have an unlikely area for potential cooperation: Pakistan.
“China wants, above all, to see Pakistan play an effective balancing role against India, and U.S. military and financial support can contribute to that,” Andrew Small, a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program, told The Diplomat in an interview, pointing to enduring concerns over regional stability. Meanwhile, Washington “wants a stable Pakistan, and Chinese investments can contribute to that.”
That’s good news for Washington. Relations with Islamabad remain at a nadir following an accidental NATO attack in November 2011 that killed 24 Pakistani troops at border checkpoints in Salala. The incident drew U.S. officials into an ugly spat with their Pakistani counterparts, who responded by closing coalition supply routes into Afghanistan.
Distaste for America is shared by the Pakistani people, almost 75 percent of whom view America as an enemy, according to a Pew Global Attitudes poll released last year. Although U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides’ apologized for the border attack and transferred US$1.1 billion in delayed military aid last July, ending the protracted supply route debacle, presently “it looks like nothing will turn public opinion of the U.S. around from its extraordinarily low level of approval,” Professor Philip Oldenburg, a leading scholar of South Asian history at Columbia University, noted in an interview with The Diplomat.
Furthermore, the Salala attack derailed plans to expand economic aid to Pakistan. Passed by Congress in 2009, the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act (also known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act) promised to provide Pakistan with US$7.5 billion in economic and development aid between 2010 and 2014, tripling nonmilitary assistance. But riddled by budgetary constraints and diplomatic turmoil, Kerry-Lugar-Berman allocations have fallen well short of annual targets, and just over half of the authorized amount has been requested for the upcoming fiscal year.
Although they stand on the opposite ends of Pakistani public opinion—with China widely popular— Beijing and Washington do not compete for influence in Pakistan, but instead play complementary roles, analysts tell The Diplomat. “China wants the United States to continue arming Pakistan, and the United States has encouraged China to expand its financial assistance to Pakistan,” Small says. Though China is Pakistan’s primary supplier of sophisticated military technology like missiles, jets, radar equipment and submarines, it cannot match U.S. military aid in volume, which totaled US$15.8 billion between 2002 and 2012. Similarly, as Small explains, “the kinds of investments that Beijing has been making are not likely to be replicated by Western investors.”
While Washington has attempted to instill a top-down approach, sending taxpayer-funded aid grants directly to Islamabad, Beijing has poured private investment into infrastructure, arts and cultural projects. The Karakorum Highway is the most prominent example: a treacherous 1,300 km corridor that connects the Chinese mainland with the Gwadar Port facility, a key strategic foothold just off the southern edge of the Strait of Hormuz. Pakistani and Chinese officials hope to supplement the roadway with a 2,000 km high-speed rail link between Kashgar and Gwadar, bringing billions of dollars in investment to the region. As a result, bilateral trade between Beijing and Islamabad expanded to over US$12 billion last year, and 120 Chinese companies are now operating in Pakistan.
China has also been expanding its cultural diplomacy with Pakistani as of late. In downtown Islamabad’s sprawling Rose and Jasmine Garden, Beijing spent 3 billion rupees to build the Pakistan-China Friendship Center, a state-of-the-art performance, conference and exhibition space boasting an 800-seat auditorium, eight conference halls and 105 residential rooms. Projects like this are “indeed solidifying the goodwill for China in Pakistan,” said Irfan Shahzad, Lead Research Coordinator at the Institute of Policy Studies, an Islamabad think tank, in an interview with The Diplomat. But that facility is just the tip of the iceberg: institutions such as the China Study Center, inaugurated at the Islamic International University Islamabad last year, along with engineering and science scholarships for Pakistani students to study in the mainland, will be critical in efforts to forge cultural linkages with elites.
But China’s practical security concerns still outweigh efforts at public diplomacy, and it is here that Chinese and American interests increasingly overlap. Beijing fears Pakistani terrorist franchises will radicalize its majority Uighur population in Xinjiang province. Beijing also seeks to protect its key political relationships in Afghanistan, including friendships with President Hamid Karzai and the Northern Alliance, and has communicated to Pakistan that it “would rather see a political settlement than a Taliban victory,” Small notes. These goals are shared by the U.S., as evidenced by President Obama’s stated objectives of eliminating Al Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan and creating a lasting national government in Afghanistan.
With American economic aid to the region diminishing and the NATO withdrawal date coming ever closer, Washington should welcome an expanded role for China in Pakistan.
Andrew Detsch is an editorial assistant at The Diplomat. You can find him on Twitter @JackDetsch.