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August 5, 2011

How all-weather are the ties?

Since the Abbottabad raid, each negative twist in ties with Washington has been followed by an upsurge of speculation about a deepening Sino-Pakistani partnership—much of it fanned by Islamabad. A recent statement that, following the suspension of US military aid, “China will help meet this gap” was of a piece with the Pakistani defence minister’s more theatrical claims about China’s takeover of Gwadar port. The message to the United States and the Pakistani public is clear: we have other options.

This has put Beijing in a tricky spot. China certainly has important long-term projects in Pakistan, Gwadar among them. But they are laden with enough sensitivities—and practical difficulties—as it is. Any instrumentalisation of these initiatives by Islamabad for the purpose of poking a stick at Washington makes China profoundly uncomfortable. China’s relationship with Pakistan has its own momentum—and its own frustrations. But Beijing has no desire to be caught in the middle of this fight and is doing its best to avoid it.

Wen Jiabao’s visit to Pakistan in December last year, the first by a Chinese premier in many years, was supposed to lay the groundwork for an expanded program of co-operation. With 2011 marking the 60th year of diplomatic relations, China has been making another effort to address the relationship’s weakest element: economics and trade. Hydro-electric projects, mining investments, and the next phase of the Chashma nuclear power plants would provide the ballast, since some of the other signature initiatives have clearly been struggling. The upgrading of the Karakorum highway, for instance, has turned into a repair job: the large artificial lake that submerged a stretch of the route in Hunza valley was only the most visible of the many practical complications. Persistent internal security difficulties mean that the most ambitious Sino-Pakistani venture—connecting Xinjiang with the Arabian Sea in a transport and energy corridor—remains a dream for now.

The military elements of the relationship are in better shape. The deepening of US-India ties has encouraged Beijing to accord heightened significance to Pakistan’s regional security role. Its ability to protect Chinese interests in Afghanistan after Western withdrawal has given this additional weight. China will hence continue to provide active backing for Pakistan to act as a strategic counter-balance to India, whether through naval, air, or ballistic missile capabilities. In addition to the cementing of this traditional rationale for the relationship, China has moved to provide direct support to Pakistani counter-terrorism efforts, with a $400 million package that encompasses everything from container-screening equipment to bulletproof vests. Over the longer term, it also clear that China has its eyes squarely on Gwadar: turmoil in the Middle East, China’s nascent counter-piracy operations, and the process of evacuating more than 30,000 Chinese workers from Libya have tipped the balance in Beijing in favour of those who want to see the port function as a Chinese naval facility when required. Defence Minister Mukhtar’s statement was icily received in Beijing. But as one Chinese analyst said: “the timing and the detail were wrong but the underlying substance was right.”

However, the political and security situation in Pakistan is a profound concern for China. This is partly a practical challenge for China’s investments. Chinese workers have to operate under particularly straitened conditions: in Karachi and Baluchistan they are virtually confined to their dormitories. Elsewhere, elaborate precautions inform their movements and Pakistan has been required to provide substantial armed protection. While these efforts have meant that there have been no killings or kidnappings since 2009, Pakistan has seen a higher rate of violent incidents for overseas Chinese than any other country in the last decade.

At a more strategic level, the concern in Beijing is that Pakistan’s deteriorating internal situation is diminishing its capacity to play the role of regional counter-balance effectively. It is precluding any possibility that Pakistan can function without external support, which will leave it as a cash drain and potential liability for China. Worse, there are growing anxieties about the “Islamisation” of Pakistan’s military, which poses the risk of internal fractures in Pakistan; of future Mumbai-style incidents that could precipitate regional war; and of a long-term weakening of the secular-strategic rationale that informs Sino-Pakistani relations.

China sees its investments in Pakistan as part of the solution. Given how little return they bring and their state-financed nature, they are essentially aid, but Beijing hopes that support for infrastructure, power, ports and transportation may yield benefits over the longer term. It is under no illusions, however, that they will do much to deal with the Pakistan’s array of short term challenges. China had started to raise its concerns and complaints about Pakistan with other governments more directly, openly wondering how the continued slide could be reversed. And then along came the May raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad.

While welcoming the operation’s success, China reacted quickly to provide backing for Pakistan. It issued an official statement of support despite being unclear on many of the details of the incident. It gave private reassurances that it would protect Pakistani officials from any international sanctions that might follow. Since then, however, Beijing has been careful to ensure that Washington is briefed every step of the way. Both before and after the Yusuf Raza Gilani’s visit in May, China gave unusually detailed read-outs to US diplomats in Islamabad and Beijing. Its messages, both then and in the subsequent US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, have been consistently reassuring: that it is encouraging Pakistan to patch up its relations with the United States and that it has no interest in exploiting differences between the two sides.

While this may sound too good to be true, it is informed by a few important considerations. China does not want to be left as Pakistan’s primary financier. It sees no reason why the economic backing it does provide to Pakistan—mostly on-the-ground rather than direct budgetary support—should become a further complication in its difficult relationship with the United States. Hostile relations between Washington and Islamabad would imperil China’s interest in a stable, militarily capable Pakistan—as well as potentially dragging Beijing into the conflict.

This doesn’t mean that China will be restrained in pressing ahead with the spectrum of its joint initiatives with Islamabad. However, Beijing shares many concerns with the United States about the situation in Pakistan and is not interested in exacerbating it. The result is that China will be deeply cautious in how it handles squalls between Washington and Islamabad. It will be in no rush to fill space that the United States vacates. And while Beijing has tolerated Pakistan playing the China card in recent weeks, in private it has made clear that this tolerance has its limits.


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