Old Chinese proverb say: Beggars can’t be choosers.
As relations between the U.S. and Pakistan deteriorate, Pakistan’s prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani referred to China as an “all-weather” friend who has stood by Pakistan through thick and thin. The truth of course, is that China has used its weight to allow the Pakistanis to be naughty when it suited China’s purpose. There are endless examples, the most significant being supporting Pakistan’s illicit nuclear program. After the bin-Laden raid, the Pakistanis are keen to promulgate the notion that they have the ability to choose their primary benefactor, and that China can quite easily replace the U.S. in this regard.
But the facts speak for themselves. The U.S. has contributed more than $20 billion to Pakistan since 2002. It also gave Pakistan over $150 million in aid of last year’s flood victims. China, almost belatedly, perhaps embarrassed by its own absence among the philanthropic few, donated $18 million. For those under any illusions that China can effectively substitute the U.S. as Pakistan’s primary patron, a read-through of Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa’s September 2010 article is warranted (excerpts):
In Pakistan, most people view China as a saviour and time-tested friend – one that, unlike the US, will never abandon their country. According to former diplomat Tariq Fatimi, this is the only one of Pakistan’s links that can be considered truly ‘strategic’. To a great extent, however, this relationship is based on the transfer of military technology. Beijing played a key role in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, and was also a source of weapons to fill the gaps left by the US arms embargo on the country until the blockade was lifted in 2001. China also provided military supplies when none were assured from the West.
Beyond the general perception that China is an all-weather friend there is also some negative opinion, particularly in the business community. The corporate sector has been badly affected by the dumping of cheap Chinese goods in Pakistan’s markets, but the high-stakes relationship between the two states means that the business community has not been able to protest too loudly. A senior official at the Ministry of Finance in Islamabad conceded that there is substantial informal trade in the form of smuggling of Chinese goods into Pakistan. However, Islamabad seems to consider it almost suicidal to broach the matter openly, given the importance of the defence ties with Beijing.
More interestingly, the second group that privately expresses reservations about China is the military personnel directly involved in weapons procurement. Junior and mid-ranking officers who come in contact with Chinese manufacturers express shock and disappointment at how Chinese businesses negotiate as ruthlessly as the weapons manufacturers of the West. In the minds of these military officers, this present-day reality clashes with the memory of China as a friend that provided Pakistan with free weaponry during the war with India in 1965. Although there is no proof to support this view, many continue to believe that China could play a decisive role as Pakistan’s saviour in case of an escalation of conflict with India.
According to an intelligence source who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Pakistani authorities go to great lengths to hide actions taken to appease Beijing. The source claims that a significant number of Pakistani citizens were caught between 2004 and 2009 by various intelligence agencies for alleged involvement in fomenting rebellion in China’s Xinjiang province, and were actually handed over to the Chinese intelligence agencies.
Likewise, in June 2007, President Pervez Musharraf reacted to the threat posed by clerics and seminary students aligned with the Lal Masjid in Lahore only after they attacked some Chinese citizens based in Pakistan, including the owner of a massage parlour in Islamabad. The Chinese ambassador in Islamabad at the time warned the government over the security of Chinese citizens, and many believe that this pressure contributed directly to the action eventually taken against the Lal Masjid clerics. Interestingly, Islamabad was silent when the Lal Masjid’s ‘burqa brigade’ had kidnapped a female professional escort and took a few police officials hostage who had come to rescue the woman. Reportedly, the Chinese ambassador had forcefully demanded protection of Chinese citizens.
In the long run, the relationship between China and Pakistan could be adversely affected if the increased militarisation and radicalism in the latter continues. Pakistan’s incessant political instability, the corruption and administrative inefficiency of its political leadership and problems of democracy are some of the many problems that feed into the inability of the China-Pakistan relationship to shift from a tactical to a strategic gear in a way that would be more beneficial to Pakistan than in the past. According to Yuqun Shao, from the Shanghai Institute of Strategic Studies, President Asif Ali Zardari does not have much credibility in Beijing, despite the fact that he is keen to further strengthen and expand bilateral links. This is hardly surprising, given Beijing’s culture of top-down authoritarian rule that emphasises political stability as a driver for economic growth. As such, the shift towards radicalism in Pakistan is bound to further negatively influence the relationship with the Pakistan government.
Ultimately, undermining the development of a more holistic relationship with China will prove disadvantageous to Pakistan, particularly now that Beijing’s strategists are reconsidering the relationship with India. In any case, Beijing seems willing to apply the model of Sino-US relations to its relationship with India as well. This means that while tensions with India – over Arunachal Pradesh, the potential strategic rivalry in the Southasian neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean, and competition for petroleum and mineral resources worldwide – could continue, it will not hamper the development of greater economic ties between the two states. But such conditions also mean that Sino-Pakistani relations could become even more tactical from Beijing’s point of view. Chinese officials, who are more concerned about improving relations with India and view the new set of relationship as an economic opportunity, will probably be averse to getting too distracted by the constant rivalry between Pakistan and India. [Himal South Asian]
After the bin-Laden raid, we have been victimized by cacophony emanating from Pakistan about how it can pick and choose its benefactors and that it doesn’t need the U.S. because it has China’s “support.” The U.S. would do well to call Pakistan’s bluff. Let the world see how much of a substitute China can be for the U.S. in Pakistan. And when realization finally hits Islamabad, the U.S. should deal with Pakistan on its own terms.
Updated: Quote courtesy a friend: “Did it matter if a grain of dust in a whirlwind retained its dignity?” – CS Forester’s “Horatio Hornblower” series