October 03, 2011

Pakistan Is Wrong to Think It Can Replace the United States With China

Originally published in Enterprise Blog

The row between the United States and Pakistan continues in the aftermath of declarations by U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen that Pakistan’s main spy agency is a key backer of the Haqqani Network, and Pakistan is starting to look mighty short of friends. The Wall Street Journal reported that on Thursday one of China’s largest mining companies was pulling out of an agreement to build coal, power, and chemical plants in southern Pakistan due to security concerns and instability in the country.

The move is significant not just because, at $19 billion, the project promised to be Pakistan’s largest foreign-investment deal ever, but because it is further evidence that the purportedly unshakable foundation on which Sino-Pakistani ties are based may not be so solid after all. Pakistanis are in the habit of waxing poetic about the superlative qualities of China-Pakistan bonhomie; Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has publicly described the friendship as being “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey.”

Unfortunately for Islamabad, all evidence points to the relationship being far shallower than it would like to admit. Pakistan hopes to have China replace the United States as its long-term strategic partner in the region. The belief that they are being underwritten by Beijing is one reason why many in Pakistan’s leadership feel they can get away with murder vis-à-vis the United States. What the Pakistanis have not grasped so far, however, is that the Chinese are unenthusiastic about playing anything close to the role the United States does in Pakistan.

China’s response to Pakistani wooing after the bin Laden raid has so far been tepid. In May, Pakistan’s defense minister publicly stated that China had agreed to take over operations at the southern Pakistani port of Gawadar. Embarrassingly, the Chinese replied that they were unaware of any such agreement. Beijing has continued to parry Pakistani urgings for a formalized defense pact, believing that Pakistan is too volatile for such a weighty agreement. The Chinese have, on multiple occasions, publicly blamed militants based inside Pakistan for violence in China’s western Xinjiang region and Chinese workers have been killed or abducted in numerous attacks inside Pakistan. Furthermore, China does not want to undertake moves that would damage its nascent rapprochement with neighboring India or sour its relations with the United States.

The bottom line is, the Chinese are in the business of doing business. They have never been generous donors of aid to Pakistan, and they likely do not want to fill the role the United States currently plays towards Pakistan with billions of dollars of multi-year assistance agreements. China has been looking to expand road and rail links through Pakistan in addition to numerous other investment projects, but it has not been willing to overlook Pakistan’s risky political and security situation.

This is not to say that the two countries will cease to have warm relations or continue to strengthen their military and trade ties, but Pakistan continues to delude itself if it thinks it will ever be able to replicate with China the opportunities the United States has so far been willing to provide. Nationalistic fervor and a sense of wounded pride are swelling in Pakistan in response to the latest fracas with the United States, and calls to break ties with America altogether are growing stronger. But Pakistan’s military and political elite had better be realistic about its impending isolation before they tell the United States “it’s time to see other strategic partners.”