As relations with Washington plummeted in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, Pakistan’s leaders turned to China, which is seen here as an enduring all-weather friend, an alternative to the troublesome and overbearing Americans.
Over the years, Beijing has sent military assistance to Pakistan, provided crucial help in initiating Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and cooperated closely on intelligence. Sturdy Chinese-Pakistan relations are seen as a hedge against India, a rival to both nations.
In recent months Pakistani officials have gone to Beijing seeking Chinese investment in a naval base and weapons, as well as trade deals worth millions of dollars.
But on closer examination, Pakistan’s ability to use China to offset its collapsing relations with the US may be far more limited than it appears, raising the prospect that Pakistan will be left on the world’s periphery once the Americans wind down the war in Afghanistan and vastly reduce their presence in the region.
A rising China with global ambitions is unlikely to supplant the United States in Pakistan, according to Chinese experts on Pakistan, as well as Pakistani and American officials. And while Pakistan’s latest flirtations with Beijing have been received cordially, Pakistani officials have walked away from their junkets with far less in hand than they might have hoped.
As Pakistan’s economy continues to decline, and the nation is beset by terrorist attacks, some Pakistanis are asking whether China will prove so helpful after all.
And like the United States, China, too, worries about Pakistan’s inability to curb terrorism, though China’s focus is almost singularly on the ethnic Uighur separatists who operate out of Pakistan and seek to destabilize the neighbouring, energy-rich region of Xinjiang. The region is particularly sensitive because it covers one-sixth of China’s land mass.
“It’s very important for China for Pakistan to be stable,” said Du Bing, assistant professor at the Institute of Asian and African Studies in Beijing. “Because if it’s not stable we can’t keep the peace in Xinjiang.”