By Michael Krepon – India remains thoroughly non-aligned, even after its
civil nuclear deal with Washington. Pakistan, in contrast, needs patrons, and
has succeeded in having two powerful ones – Washington and Beijing – to
counterbalance India, a significant diplomatic accomplishment.
No other country has managed to draw significant, concurrent support from
both Washington and Beijing, both before and after these powerhouses started
speaking to each other.
Afghanistan is a trivial pursuit in geopolitical terms. This poor,
unfortunate state matters most in geopolitical terms as the locus of follies
conducted by others within its borders. Afghanistan matters far less than the
demise of the US-Pakistan partnership. A complete split would constitute a loss
for both parties, but Pakistan, the weaker party, will suffer far more for
losing a patron.
The United States and Pakistan have been partners since the 1950s.
Pakistan’s perceived utility to the United States extended long after John
Foster Dulles’ regional alliances to contain the Soviet Union – Cento and Seato
Paradoxically, the rise and revitalization of the Taliban, with Rawalpindi’s
support, created conditions whereby Pakistan could initially renew and then jeopardize
its partnership with the United States. In June 2004, Washington declared
Pakistan to be a major non-Nato ally. It’s been a downhill ride ever since.
Reversing this slide will take a good long while, especially if the Taliban
retake Kabul with Rawalpindi’s help.
China, Pakistan’s other powerful patron, is an “all weather” friend,
providing significant support for Pakistan’s ballistic missile and nuclear
weapon programs in the past.
After the Bush administration gifted New Delhi with a qualified exemption to
the rules of nuclear commerce, Beijing consented to repeated Pakistani requests
for nuclear power plants at concessionary rates – reactors that may no longer
be built on Chinese soil.
Islamabad is increasingly looking to Beijing for investment and
infrastructure development, but big steps forward are hindered by Pakistan’s
internal security problems.
In a stunning blow to Pakistani economic development plans, the China Kingho
Group pulled out of a $19-billion deal to build coal mines, power, and chemical
plants in Sindh because Beijing feels that Karachi is not safe to invest or
reside. Beijing has also called out Pakistan – a very unusual move – because of
unrest in China’s western border areas stoked allegedly by militants trained in
Pakistan. Islamabad has pledged to deal with the issues causing Chinese
discontent, and seeks to get investment back on track.
During crises with India in 1990, 1999, and 2001-02, Pakistani civilian and
military leaders made beelines to Beijing seeking backup.
They received polite but unmistakable advice to resolve their difficulties
with New Delhi without major new weapon shipments or shrill public warnings
against Indian military adventurism. Beijing helped the United States, South
Asia’s essential crisis manager, more than it helped Pakistan during these
During the millennial flood of 2010, the United States provided $550 million
to help Pakistanis in great distress, including $62 million in seeds and
agricultural implements so that farmers could produce a bumper wheat crop after
the waters receded. After prodding by US officials, China reportedly added $200
million in flood-related assistance to its initial offering of $47 million.
Pakistani government leaders have tried to strengthen their partnership with
China in tangible ways as ties with the United States fray. One method of
dealing with Washington’s growing disaffection is by characterizing security
assurances purportedly made in private by Chinese officials in ways that
Beijing has notably refrained from reaffirming.
For example, during Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar’s trip to China in May
2011, he spoke appreciatively of Chinese construction of the Gwadar port, while
expressing an interest in Chinese construction of “a naval base” there. When
asked about this request, a senior Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson
replied, “I have not heard about it.”
This odd exchange took place around the same time as a meeting in Beijing
between Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.
Pakistani media outlets dutifully reported in a Pakistani foreign ministry
press release that, “China has warned in unequivocal terms that any attack on
Pakistan would be construed as an attack on China. Beijing has advised
Washington to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty and solidarity… The Chinese
leadership was extremely forthcoming in assuring unprecedented support to
Pakistan for its national cause and security.” Chinese media outlets did not
report this assurance.
Similarly, after Admiral Mike Mullen vocalized his assessment about
Rawalpindi’s ties with the Haqqani network before leaving his post as chairman
of the US joint chiefs of staff, Prime Minister Gilani asserted the following
week, during a visit by Vice Premier Meng Jianzhu, China’s minister of public
safety, that China “categorically supports Pakistan’s efforts to uphold its
sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity”. Again, Chinese media
reports did not use this formulation.
Pakistan’s military will increasingly rely on Chinese equipment. But the
track record of China-Pakistan relations – especially during natural disasters
and crises with India – suggests a relationship in which Pakistan asks for much
and Beijing is circumspect about giving.
Photo Credit: DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeele