Angry with the U.S., What Can Pakistan Get Out of China?

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ABCNews reports that Pakistani authorities may be willing to share with their Chinese counterparts the charred wreckage of the detonated U.S. stealth helicopter used in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. Anonymous Pakistani officials claimed the Chinese, whose military harbors a not-so-secret ambition to match American capabilities in the long term, “were very interested” in analyzing the remains of the stealth craft. “We might let them have a look.”

China and Pakistan have a longstanding military relationship, anchored mostly around the two nations’ mutual antipathy toward India. But the Pakistani admission comes at a particularly fractious moment in the interminable, ungainly tango that is the U.S.-Pakistani alliance. As we’ve already covered, the presence of bin Laden on Pakistani soil has led to noisy grumbling from both camps, the Americans rightly furious that Islamabad could have let a terrorist mastermind hang out in the leafy environs of the Pakistani capital while the Pakistanis respond with heated rhetoric blaming U.S. policy for bin Laden’s rise in the first place. Whatever illusions of trust that existed before have now been dispelled, with many in the U.S. calling for a wholesale reevaluation of its relationship with a partner that for decades through the Cold War and thereafter has been a key regional ally. There’s no love lost on the Pakistani side, either.

So compare this current unpleasantness with Islamabad’s sweet talking of China. Just this Sunday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani hailed China as Pakistan’s “best and most trusted friend.” He went on: “When we speak of this friendship as being taller than the Himalayas and deeper than the oceans it truly captures the essence of our relationship.” You’ll be hard-pressed to find any Pakistani dignitary gushing about the U.S. in that way, even though, statistically, U.S. aid and involvement in Pakistan far outstrips China’s imprint.

Sure, Chinese drones aren’t the ones zooming over the mountains of Waziristan, raining death upon unsuspecting villages. And Islamabad and Beijing have long trussed up their “all-weather” ties along lines of mutual respect and non-interference. But both value the other on clear grounds of realpolitik: China sees in Pakistan a pivotal proxy for its geo-political expansion into South and West Asia — most notably, the Chinese were allowed to build a multibillion dollar sea port at Gwadar in Pakistani Baluchistan. For Pakistan, the Chinese alternative is a useful chip to have in hand when trying to seek leverage with Washington. China has been instrumental over the years in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Gilani’s trip later this week to China will further thrash out the terms of a civilian nuclear energy deal China agreed with the Pakistanis last year. After the U.S. under the Bush administration signed a controversial nuclear energy pact with India, the Pakistanis clamored for their own dispensation from Washington, but that never came — a decision that makes sense given Pakistan’s instability, but which still irks many in the country, including its Prime Minister.

Some say that the geo-politicking underway between China, the U.S., Pakistan and India needn’t be zero-sum. In an article in Foreign Policy earlier this week, Patrick Doherty of the New America Foundation points to how Beijing and Washington can find common cause over Pakistan:

China has a stake in promoting sustainable, pan-Asian prosperity in the medium-to-long term to fuel its torrid economic growth… This is where Chinese, U.S., and Pakistani interests powerfully intersect. China needs a marked increase in Pakistani agricultural productivity, while America needs Pakistan to build a prosperous economy and a moderate political order that sees its neighbors to the northwest and east as economic opportunities — rather than threats.

It’s hard to deny that an improved Pakistani economy and a stabler political situation would please all the country’s neighbors and the U.S. to boot. But there have been few indications from the Chinese that they’re willing to act in concert with the U.S. to improve rule of law, encourage political reforms and help strengthen civilian institutions in Pakistan. (It’s hard to be advocating these things as an authoritarian state). And Washington itself has devoted most of its energies engaging the country’s all-powerful state within the state — its military. China has even less incentive to broaden its contacts. As I reported last year, despite the widespread respect China garners on the Pakistani street, its connection to the embattled South Asian nation is still somewhat superficial.

C. Christine Fair, an expert on South Asian political and military affairs at Georgetown University, says much of the apparent strength of Sino-Pakistani ties is illusory. “China does what is in its strategic interests and uses Pakistan no more and no less than [other big donors] Saudi Arabia and the U.S.,” she says. There’s little effort from Beijing to help boost Pakistan’s flagging civilian government or stabilize the country’s democracy. According to Fair, Beijing’s support of Islamabad is meant, in part, to tie up China’s longer-term regional rival, India. “What China really wants is to encourage security competition to basically counter India’s rise,” she says.

So the smoking ruin of a secret U.S. stealth helicopter may very well be one more pawn in the Great Game that’s still being played out in the shadows of the Hindu Kush.