The raid to kill Bin Laden in Abbatabad, Pakistan, like a nuclear blast, has fallout beyond the immediate event.
One of those effects is the apparent impetus for closer relations between Pakistan and China.
The Economist noted earlier this month that Pakistan made no secret of praising its relations with China in the aftermath of the Bin Laden raid.
PAKISTAN’S ambassador to Beijing, Masood Kahn, was this week fully armed with metaphors to describe the robust friendship between the two countries. “We say it is higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight, sweeter than honey, and so on.”
The relationship is indeed a geopolitical keystone for both countries. Pakistan serves as China’s closest friend both in South Asia and among Islamic countries. So close, indeed, that many suspect China has asked Pakistan for the valuable remains of the American stealth helicopter abandoned during the bin Laden raid. Meanwhile, China can help counterbalance Pakistan’s arch-rival, India, including in Afghanistan.
Pakistan seems keen to foster the impression that new tensions with America might nudge it even closer towards China. In his blustery speech to parliament on May 9th Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani struck out on an odd tangent to praise China as an “all-weather friend”, providing Pakistan with strength and inspiration. Not to be outdone, President Asif Zardari issued an effusive statement of his own about a friendship “not matched by any other relationship between two sovereign countries”.
Others have noted the attempts by Pakistan to curry favor with China as well. The Wall Street Journal Online has this:
BEIJING—Pakistan’s defense minister said China has agreed to take over operation of the strategically positioned but underused port of Gwadar, and that Islamabad would like the Chinese to build a base there for the Pakistani navy.
Ahmad Mukhtar gave no clear timetable on the possible change at Gwadar, on Pakistan’s western coast, which is currently managed by a Singaporean government company. But his statement Saturday is the latest illustration of how Pakistan is portraying China as a powerful alternative ally and aid source if the U.S. scales down military assistance for Islamabad in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s killing.
On the whole, given the duplicity of Pakistan and the inevitable conflict in the Pakistani tribal areas, putting some distance between the U.S. and Pakistan may be beneficial in the long run. In other words: if you want to jump into bed with China, good luck with their cold feet.
Both The Economist and The Wall Street Journal Online note the decidedly ambivalent feelings about Pakistan by the Chinese. The Economist cautions:
But if Islamabad is worried about falling out with Washington and hopes to get more out of Beijing, it may be in for disappointment. According to Zhu Feng of Peking University, such calculations based on “the traditional mentality of power politics” are misplaced. China’s robust, longstanding ties with Pakistan stand on their own merits, he says, and owe nothing to America’s standing in Pakistan. Both China and America want a stable Pakistan.
For all that, China’s dealings with Pakistan have always been conducted with one eye on India. Last year Beijing chose to supply Pakistan with two new civilian nuclear reactors, even though the deal appeared to violate Chinese non-proliferation commitments. It was a boon not only for Pakistan’s energy-starved economy. It was, as Mr Zhu points out, also a way for China to counterbalance a controversial nuclear deal reached earlier between America and India.
China and Pakistan have a lustily growing trade relationship, worth almost $9 billion last year. China provides military gear, including fighter jets and frigates. Some Chinese infrastructure projects in Pakistan have strategic implications. They include ports on the Arabian Sea and a proposed rail project which has yet to be approved, but which would arouse controversy, and Indian ire, by running through contested territory in Kashmir.
Still, China’s commitment to Pakistan has its limits. After devastating floods last year, America gave Pakistan $690m, 28% of all international aid. China’s contribution was a mere $18m. According to Andrew Small of the German Marshall Fund, an American policy institute, Pakistan may be “talking up the ‘China option’ beyond where the Chinese are willing to go.” China, he reckons, will be reluctant to tilt too far towards what might look like an anti-India alliance”. Despite border disagreements, China wants to keep its relations with India in reasonable order.
What is more, Pakistan’s chronic instability and its failure, whether by design or incompetence, to suppress extremism make Pakistan as hard a partner for China to trust as for America. “Sweeter than honey” may be plenty sweet enough.
The WSJ sounds a similar note:
China is eager to expand its influence in Pakistan over the long term, but is wary of the country’s chronic instability, which was highlighted late Sunday when a Pakistani naval base was attacked in the western port of Karachi, about 300 miles southeast of Gwadar.
Indeed. In some ways, Pakistan and China are made for each other. One is chronically unstable and in dire need of constant foreign aid while the other is infamously stingy and calculating in its foreign affairs. May they enjoy each others’ company for many years. We can certainly use the money wasted in foreign aid to Pakistan for better purposes such as freeing us from our dependence on foreign oil.
At the same time, there is no doubt that India feels the pressure of a nuclear Pakistan and nuclear China on its borders. The U.S. has everything to gain by pursuing closer ties with India, the rising power of the Near East. Trading Pakistan for India would be like trading Hillary Clinton for Sarah Palin. I think we can live with that exchange.
But we should be under no illusions that, whatever happens to the American-Pakistani relationship, China is increasingly in the mood to flex its muscles in the region. According to an article flagged at Hot Air, China has reportedly given the U.S. something of an ultimatum regarding any future border incursions into Pakistan:
Barack Obama says that if the US has another chance to get a high-value terrorist target like Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, he’ll make the same call as he did earlier this month. Not so fast, says China. According to a report from India a few days ago, China has warned that an “attack” on Pakistan will be taken as an attack on China (via Pundit Press):
In the wake of the US raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden, China has “warned in unequivocal terms that any attack on Pakistan would be construed as an attack on China”, a media report claimed today.
The warning was formally conveyed by the Chinese foreign minister at last week’s China-US strategic dialogue and economic talks in Washington, The News daily quoted diplomatic sources as saying. China also advised the USa to “respect Pakistan’s sovereignty and solidarity”, the report said.
Chinese Premier Mr Wen Jiabao informed his Pakistani counterpart Mr Yousuf Raza Gilani about the matters taken up with the US during their formal talks at the Great Hall of the People yesterday. The report said China “warned in unequivocal terms that any attack on Pakistan would be construed as an attack on China”. The two premiers held a 45-minute one-on-one meeting before beginning talks with their delegations.
The Chinese leadership was “extremely forthcoming in assuring its unprecedented support to Pakistan for its national cause and security” and discussed all subjects of mutual interest with Mr Gilani, the report said. Mr Gilani described Pakistan-China relations and friendship as “unique”. Talking to Pakistani journalists accompanying him, he said that China had acknowledged his country’s contribution and sacrifices in the war against terrorism and supported its cause at the international level. “China supported Pakistan’s cause on its own accord,” Mr Gilani said with reference to the Sino-US strategic dialogue where the Chinese told the US that Pakistan should be helped and its national honour respected. Mr Gilani said China had asked the US to improve its relations with Pakistan, keeping in view the present scenario.
It it difficult to believe that China would truly be willing to go to war over, say, a Predator drone attack or even a SOF incursion into the FATA, but uncertainty over China’s reaction to any future missions of a similar nature will only add to the difficulty of having an ally with whom you are, in some measure, at war.