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China and Pakistan: An all-weather friendship

May 26, 2011 14:03 IST

The China-Pakistan partnership serves the interests of both partners by presenting India with a potential two-front theatre in the event of war with either country says Harsh V Pant.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani went to China on a four-day visit last week to celebrate the year-long observance of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Of course, there is much to celebrate in a bilateral relationship that has been described as "higher than mountains and deeper than oceans."

But at a time when Pakistan is under intense scrutiny for its role in fighting extremism and terrorism, the world would be watching with interest how China decides to deal with Pakistan. There are voices in the US asking the Obama administration to partner with China to restore stability to Pakistan. There are also many in India who have suggested that China shares a range of objectives with not only the US but also with India that include a prosperous, sustainable, and secure Pakistan that does not remain a base for Al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Yet recent Chinese actions provide little hope that any change in Chinese policy vis-à-vis Pakistan might be in the offing. China was perhaps the only major power that openly voiced its support for Pakistan after the Osama bin Laden fiasco. Hailing the killing of bin Laden as a "major event and a positive development in the international struggle against terrorism," China's ministry of foreign affairs spokeswoman Jiang Yu did not fail to notice that "Pakistan stands at the forefront of the international struggle against terrorism…Pakistani government's determination to fight terrorism are staunch and its actions have been vigorous. Pakistan has made important contributions to the international struggle against terror." It has also been reported that China has shown interest in the debris of the crashed SEAL helicopter in the Abbottabad raid.

During the latest visit, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao assured the visiting prime minister, of China's support. Wen affirmed that "Pakistan has made huge sacrifices and an important contribution to the international fight against terrorism, that its independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity must be respected, and that the international community should understand and support Pakistan's efforts to maintain domestic stability and to realise economic and social development."

Wen went on to state that China would like to be an "all-weather strategic partner" and will do its best to help the Pakistani government and people get through their difficulties. To underscore its commitment, China has agreed to immediately provide Pakistan 50 new JF-17 Thunder multi-role jets under a co-production agreement even as negotiations continue for more fighter aircrafts including those with stealth technology.

Pakistan and China have enjoyed a unique relationship for a long time now. Maintaining close ties with China has been a priority for Islamabad, and Beijing has provided extensive economic, military, and technical assistance to Pakistan over the years. It was Pakistan that in early 1970s enabled China to cultivate its ties with the West and the US in particular, for Pakistan was the conduit for Henry Kissinger's landmark secret visit to China in 1971 and was instrumental in bringing China closer to the larger Muslim world.

Pakistan enjoys a multifaceted and deep-rooted relationship with China underpinned by mutual trust and confidence. Pakistan has also supported China on all issues of importance to the latter, especially those related to the question of China's sovereignty over Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet, and other sensitive issues such as human rights. China has reciprocated by supporting Pakistan's stance on Kashmir.

Over the years China has emerged as Pakistan's largest defence supplier.

Military cooperation between the two countries has deepened with joint projects to produce armaments ranging from fighter jets to guided missile frigates. China is a steady source of military hardware to the resource-deficient Pakistani Army.

China has played a major role in the development of Pakistan's nuclear infrastructure and has emerged as Pakistan's benefactor at a time when increasingly stringent export controls in Western countries made it difficult for Pakistan to acquire materials and technology from other sources. The Pakistani nuclear weapons program is essentially an extension of the Chinese one.

Although China has long denied helping any nation attain nuclear capability, the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, has acknowledged the crucial role China has played by giving Pakistan 50 kilograms of weapons-grade enriched uranium, providing detailed plans of nuclear weapons, and tons of uranium hexafluoride for Pakistan's centrifuges. This is perhaps the only case where a nuclear weapon state has passed on weapons-grade fissile material as well as a bomb design to a non-nuclear weapon state.

On the economic front, bilateral trade between China and Pakistan rose to $15 billion last year. China's "no-strings attached" economic aid to Pakistan is appreciated more than the aid it receives from the US, which often comes with conditions, even though Chinese assistance is nowhere near what the US gives to Pakistan.

With the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari under intense pressure from the United States to do more to fight terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil, there are calls in Pakistan to adopt a foreign policy which considers China and not the US to be Pakistan's strongest ally and most significant stakeholder. China's emergence as the leading global economic power, coupled with increased cooperation between India and the US, has helped this suggestion gain support.

Washington has historically been accused of using Pakistan in times of need and then deserting it for a policy that favours stronger relations with India to serve its larger strategic agenda. China is considered a reliable ally which has always come to Pakistan's aid when India has seemed on the ascendant, to the extent that China has even supported Pakistan's strategy of using terror as an instrument of policy against India. Not surprisingly, Pakistan has given China a 'blank check' to intervene in India-Pakistan peace talks.

With India ascending in the global hierarchy and the US continuing to build a strong partnership with India, China's need for Pakistan is likely to grow. This has been evident in Chinese polices towards Pakistan on critical issues in South Asia. A rising India makes Pakistan all the more important in China's strategy for the subcontinent. It is highly unlikely that China will give up playing the Pakistan card vis-à-vis India anytime soon. The China-Pakistan partnership serves the interests of both partners by presenting India with a potential two-front theatre in the event of war with either country.

Each is using the other to counterbalance India, as India's disputes with Pakistan keep India occupied and thus prevent it from attaining its potential as a major regional and global player. It is therefore highly unlikely that China will be a credible partner for the US in stabilising Pakistan as is being argued by some in Washington. The focus on India will continue to cement an already solid Sino-Pak partnership in the coming years.

Harsh V Pant is the author of The China Syndrome.

Harsh V Pant