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Oct 16, 2008 | 20:02 GMT

7 mins read

China: Walking a Fine Line in Alliance With Pakistan

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met in Beijing for broad-ranging talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao. The two oversaw the signing of several deals between China and Pakistan, and held talks to discuss greater economic cooperation and a strengthened strategic partnership. But beneath the pomp and ceremony, Beijing is undertaking a serious reassessment of its ties with Islamabad, with an eye on Pakistani-U.S. relations.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Chinese President Hu Jintao met in Beijing on Oct. 15 in Zardari's first official state visit of his presidency. Pakistan has touted the trip as a way to reinforce the strategic partnership with China at a time when Islamabad's relations with Washington are strained and economic and political stability in the country is facing serious challenges. Following their meeting, the two presidents oversaw the signing of 11 memorandums of understanding covering economic, political, technical and cultural issues. In addition, there has been much anticipation of expanded civilian nuclear cooperation between the two, as well as reports that Pakistan will request a sizable soft loan from its long-standing ally. Despite the pomp and circumstance, however, Beijing is growing increasingly concerned about the status of its trilateral relationship with Islamabad and Washington. The ongoing presence of Islamist militants training and recruiting in Pakistan — and, more significantly, the deterioration of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship — is spurring China to rethink its Pakistan policies and the limits of its commitment to its ally. China's ties with Pakistan have evolved over time. Although initially Beijing viewed Islamabad as a potential counterweight to India, the relationship now is concerned more with access to, and protection of, natural resources. Pakistan is currently one of several resource bridges China is considering — routes for the transit of energy from abroad (particularly Africa and the Middle East) that bypass the vulnerable Strait of Malacca, which is currently a major choke point in China's resource supply lines. Beijing has discussed shipping oil or natural gas from Africa and the Middle East to Pakistan, and then running that by pipeline or rail into China. Other commodities, too, could potentially reach China's western and central provinces via the Pakistan route. This would reduce the number of ships carrying Chinese commodities around India, through the strait and up the South China Sea — distant sea routes that China lacks the naval power to protect. The pipelines, rails and highway routes through Pakistan to China are costly and technologically challenging, but Beijing views these — coupled with similar routes through Myanmar and land routes through Central Asia — as strategic supplements to its maritime routes, ideally providing redundancies and alternatives to reduce China's dependence on any single vulnerable choke point. But despite the long-standing relationship between Beijing and Islamabad, and the potential strategic and political benefits the relationship could provide China, Beijing is growing concerned about Pakistan — particularly the status of Pakistan's relations with the United States. Beijing sees that Washington is beginning to view Pakistan as a battleground in its war against jihadists rather than an ally — and this raises a serious potential problem for China. China has little interest in abandoning its relations with Pakistan, however. Indeed, Beijing is reinforcing its cooperation with Islamabad, at least publicly, particularly after the United States and India agreed to a new civilian nuclear deal. That deal, which China initially tried (unsuccessfully) to discourage, triggered a debate in Beijing over the limits of China's foreign influence, and over the wisest use of what influence and political capital Beijing does have. The Chinese resistance to the U.S.-India deal was almost a preprogrammed one. China naturally had to oppose such an alliance, particularly as its ally Pakistan was so concerned about the deal. But some in Beijing argued that China really had no power to stop the deal, and attempts to derail it not only were bound for failure, but also would make China look weak and incapable when they did fail. So long as the deal was bogged down in Indian and U.S. politics, China could criticize it without the least concern for somehow backing words with action. But when things began to look like they were going to proceed — despite Beijing's objections — Chinese officials rethought their position. Following a call to Hu from U.S. President George W. Bush, and an agreement that the United States would not take advantage of the Beijing Olympics to press China on human rights and other issues, Beijing backed down. To ease Islamabad's attendant concerns and to maintain China's image for the rest of its allies and partners, Beijing quickly began discussing greater civilian nuclear cooperation with Pakistan in response to the U.S.-India deal, as well as an acceleration of the sale of Chinese fighters to Pakistan to make up for the lack of movement on Islamabad's request for late-model F-16s from the United States. But in many ways, these are just token actions, and do not fundamentally alter the balance of power in the region. And despite Islamabad's requests to bolster ties with Beijing amid increased friction with Washington, China is hesitant to follow through with these actions at the moment, or with anything much more substantial. In fact, it is this tension that has Beijing worried and reticent. If the United States no longer sees Pakistan as a responsible ally, but instead as a battleground, China must think twice about bolstering the Pakistani government in any way that could give Washington a reason to shift pressure from Islamabad to Beijing. China has demonstrated its willingness to subtly step back from its partners in the face of U.S. pressure before — it reduced its dependence on Iranian oil during the U.S. push to stem Iranian nuclear developments. Beijing does not want to end up being seen as a stumbling block in Washington's attempts to bring about a conclusion to the war in Afghanistan. Chinese leaders remember the "accidental" bombing of the Chinese embassy in Serbia, at a time when China may have been allowing the Serbian regime the use of communications facilities in the embassy compound. That incident caused China to reconsider the value of playing around too far from home, especially in areas that put it crossways with Washington and are not key strategic interests. Beijing now faces a much more substantial dilemma in Pakistan. China continues to call publicly for multilateral cooperation (involving China, the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan) to deal with the problem of Islamist militancy in Afghanistan and Central Asia. At the same time, for the benefit of its other allies, China is trying to demonstrate publicly its support for Pakistan (and Pakistan's territorial integrity). But if Chinese involvement begins to inhibit U.S. interests, China will be forced to weigh the potential benefits and risks of countering U.S. moves. And at the moment, despite the public show of support, this is a very real concern on the minds of Chinese policymakers. Beijing's No. 1 security concern is at home. China is facing an economic downturn that threatens to exacerbate social tensions that have arisen over the unequal distribution of wealth and the consistent and rising gap between rural and urban, poor and rich. To deal with the domestic crisis, the key Chinese foreign policy is to avoid incurring the ire of Washington — to avoid exposing China's domestic problems to potential meddling from the United States. The question now being asked is just how important Chinese relations with Pakistan are, compared to how serious the United States is in dealing with Pakistan.

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