The visit to China by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has been widely described as an effort to seek support from an old friend at a time when Pakistan’s government and military are facing difficult questions over the degree of official complicity in sheltering Osama bin Laden. But even as China has defended Pakistan’s efforts to combat terrorism, the state media here has portrayed Gilani’s visit as nothing more than a regular interchange between representatives of the two longtime allies. The notion that fallout after the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad would lead to increased maneuvering by China in South Asia has been attacked in the press here. In an editorial today the official China Daily argued that “the traditional friendly relations between Beijing and Islamabad are long-standing and have withstood the test of time. Their stable and growing bilateral relationship does not target any third party, but rather contributes to regional peace and stability.”
Ahead of his trip, Gilani emphasized the backing his country has received from China, even as it has faced criticism from the U.S. “To test a friend whether true or not, it needs time and means under crisis, we appreciate that in all difficult circumstances China stood with Pakistan, therefore we call China a true friend and a time-tested and all-weather friend,” he told China’s state-run Xinhua news service in an interview Monday ahead of his China trip. Gilani noted that China was the first country to show its support for Pakistan following the raid that killed bin Laden. That backing from China offers a distinct counterpoint to the disapproval Pakistan has faced from Washington, where some lawmakers have proposed cutting the billions in aid the U.S. gives Pakistan annually. In a recent interview with TIME, Gilani’s spoke repeatedly about the “trust deficit” between the two countries.In Beijing, Gilani was welcomed Wednesday by Premier Wen Jiabao, who said that the two countries would be friends and partners “no matter how the international situation changes.” Gilani’s visit was planned in advance as part of the celebrations marking 60 years of ties between China and Pakistan. Pakistan was one of the first states to recognize Mao’s People’s Republic, and the two allies have long depended upon one another to counterbalance the influence of the region’s other power, India. China has helped Pakistan develop its nuclear program as well as supply conventional arms. It has built infrastructure, including a port at Gwadar on the Indian Ocean and nuclear power stations in Punjab province. In Pakistan, the public view towards China is almost the exact opposite of that towards the U.S. While 85% of Pakistanis have a favorable view towards China, just 17% hold a similarly positive view toward the U.S., according to a 2010 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project.
In the U.S. there are fears that China will use the recent deterioration of U.S.-Pakistan ties to boost its influence. But China hardly needs greater clout there. As my colleague Aryn Baker wrote last week, it’s the U.S., which has given Pakistan $20 billion since 2002, which still has to figure out how to influence its ally for hire.