The word ‘pragmatic’ comes to mind when we view the outcome of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Islamabad. The visit, the first in 10 years, was warmly awaited by Islamabad, China’s ‘evergreen’ friend. But it was more about rhetoric than substance. The larger statement of the visit, manifested in the agreements signed and the statements made, was that China wanted better relations with all of South Asia, especially its largest country, India. What was announced in Islamabad about nuclear cooperation was not very different from what was said in New Delhi. There was no nuclear deal to rival the one India has signed with the United States. No doubt, the canny Chinese will wait to see the fate of the India-US nuclear agreement in the American Congress and within the Nuclear Suppliers Group before making a move.
Not surprisingly, Mr Hu reiterated his country’s pointedly neutral stance on Kashmir. Asked what role China could play in resolving the dispute, Mr Hu’s anodyne answer was that as a close neighbour of both countries, China hoped to see peace and stability in the subcontinent. He reiterated Beijing’s support to the efforts of India and Pakistan to resolve their problems through dialogue. As for taking strategic partnership to a ‘new level’, the formulation is no different from the one that was made in New Delhi. If Mr Hu has invited 500 Pakistanis to visit China in the next five years, the number he invited in India is 5,000; if Sino-Pak trade is to triple in five years to $15 billion in five years, Sino-Indian trade is to double to $40 billion.
The one major difference was the signing of the free trade agreement between Islamabad and Beijing, which basically reflects the relative weakness of the Pakistani economy. Even in the area of conventional defence relations, the movement is not particularly significant. The Chinese cooperation with Pakistan in the aviation sector is actually a convenient way for Beijing to access Western technology currently denied to it. The airborne early warning project will undoubtedly feed off from the deal Pakistan has signed with Sweden for its very capable Eyrie system earlier in May. All in all, the Pakistan visit was more by way of reassuring an old and still useful ally, rather than breaking any new ground.