Wary eyes on China’s long game in Pakistan

Posted: May 30, 2011 in South China Morning Post
Tags: , , , , , ,

An op-ed for a new outlet the South China Morning Post, this time exploring the Sino-Pak relationship. A fascinating topic that I have touched upon before within the context of Afghanistan, but i think would be worth a close exploration in its own right at some point. It is behind a firewall so I cannot simply repost it here, but to those who are interested you can get a free subscription to the site in a few clicks. Alternatively, drop me a line and I can see about getting you the text. In the meantime, a flavour (UPDATE, NOV 2020 – given all the links are dead and someone came looking for this today, am now posting this in its full glory for posterity):

Wary Eyes on China’s Long Game in Pakistan

As relations between the US and Pakistan came under increasing strain following the killing of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil, Pakistani President Yousaf Raza Gilani visited Beijing. There, Premier Wen Jiabao lavished praise upon Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts, handed over 50 fighter jets, and told Gilani “no matter what changes might take place in the international landscape, China and Pakistan will remain forever good neighbours, good friends, good partners and good brothers.”

Gilani’s four-day trip was apparently planned before the raid in Abbottabad, and was clearly part of a pro-China push by Pakistan. Just before the raid, in a meeting between Gilani and his Afghan counterparts, the Pakistanis reportedly told the Afghans to look to China as a possible big brother in the region to replace America.

This is not surprising. Relations between China and Pakistan are one of the most enduring international relationships. China has invested billions in Pakistan, while bilateral trade stands at US$8.7 billion. Beijing has supported Islamabad in its various conflicts against China’s regional competitor, India, and has been one of the key supporters of the Pakistani nuclear programme. Just this month, a new Chinese-built nuclear reactor was opened in Chashma, with a further two planned.

This relationship is seen in a very sceptical light in the West. But, to paraphrase what a Chinese researcher once told me: “Pakistan needs at least one friend in the world.” And while the West has seemed an erratic friend to Pakistan, China has been the “all-weather friend”. This has allowed Pakistan to indulge in some rather bad behaviour on the international stage, but, at the same time, it may have helped avert a state collapse.

China’s approach to Pakistan is to play a long game – the assumption is that development and support will help make the country more prosperous and slowly turn it into a stable actor. This approach is not going to solve the more immediate problems that concern the West. But railing continually against Pakistan’s incompetence is not going to speed things up. All it will do is push Pakistan ever closer to its oldest friend. And we can be sure that Beijing will not advance Western interests in Pakistan unless they happen to coincide with its own.

The point is that the West needs to step carefully here. If the two countries were pushed closer together, the net result might be to merely further alienate the West from a region that is going to be a key economic and security interest over the next few decades.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and a China programme associate at the European Council on Foreign Relations

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