Pakistan's China Card

By Andrew Small

ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan- For at least a handful of Chinese soldiers, the television footage of Abbottabad around the Osama bin Laden raid was familiar. In December 2006, the city was the site of an extensive set of joint Sino-Pakistani counterterrorism exercises. The "large-scale intelligence gathering," "ambushes," and "search and destroy missions" unfortunately failed to get anywhere near the world's most wanted terrorist, who is believed to have set up house in this Pakistani garrison town earlier that year.

It is understandable that the Sino-Pakistani relationship provokes suspicion. And since the U.S. Navy Seals conducted their more efficacious mission here, speculation has been rife that China is primed to take advantage of the deterioration in U.S.-Pakistani ties. Beijing's expressions of solidarity with Islamabad, coupled with announcements that it will expedite the delivery of 50 JF-17 fighter jets and may assume operational control of the port at Gwadar, have given some the impression that Chinese support is now a plausible back-up plan for Pakistan. This has been reinforced by certain Pakistani politicians who have been keen to demonstrate, both to the West and to their own public, that even in the tightest of spots they still have a reliable (and generous) friend.

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Indeed, China has privately assured Pakistan that it would protect it from any international sanctions push that might ensue. Beijing is also pressing ahead with initiatives on the ground, despite countless slowdowns and security challenges. Chinese companies likely will assume responsibility for Gwadar following the resolution of a legal case against its current Singaporean operator. Work continues on the expansion of the Karakoraum Highway connecting the two countries. And major power projects, including the controversial Chashma nuclear power plants and an assortment of hydro-electric dams, are expected to proceed. Military cooperation, too, will remain at the core of the relationship. China's desire for Pakistan to maintain a strategic balance with India means that aside from conventional arms supplies and the joint development of frigates and jet fighters, Beijing is willing to provide continued support to the most sensitive elements of Pakistan's weapons programs, such as ballistic missile technology. China hopes this support will engender a stable, economically capable Pakistan that can act as both security balancer and trade corridor, though no one in Beijing is holding their breath.

But although the scope of Sino-Pakistani ties is undeniable, there is also a mutual appreciation of their limits. Beijing has made it clear that it sees more risk than opportunity in the worsening U.S.-Pakistani relationship. And despite the rhetoric, expectations in Islamabad of the level of Chinese support are realistically modest. While China is willing to fund tangible projects in Pakistan, it has been consistently reluctant to provide direct financial assistance on a serious scale. Beijing is already frustrated with the current level of assistance it feels it needs to provide; Chinese "investments" in Pakistan are effectively bilateral aid, financed through state companies and banks with no expectation of an economic return.

The widespread impression that bin Laden was living under protection from elements within the Pakistani state has also played into growing Chinese concerns over extremist sympathies among Pakistan's security services. And this has all come at a time of marked pessimism in Beijing over Islamabad's future trajectory and the implications of the security situation in the country for its ambitious economic projects. The outstanding obstacle to closer Sino-Pakistani ties is not Washington but Pakistan's own internal problems. As one Pakistani security analyst said, "China's message to us at the moment is: ‘We'll support you, but get your own house in order and don't do anything stupid.'"

The assault on bin Laden's compound did yield one clear dividend for China -- the chance for a good look at a downed U.S. stealth helicopter. Otherwise, Beijing's reaction has been more one of apprehension than glee. China does not want its ties with Pakistan to become a source of tension in its relationship with the United States. It is concerned that any withdrawal of U.S. financial support would either weaken Pakistan or leave China with the task of bailing it out. Even if China did offer Pakistan a guaranteed annual budget line of billions of dollars to break off security ties with the United States, decision-makers in Rawalpindi would quickly decline the offer. Aside from other strategic considerations, the military has no desire to become dependent on equipment from Beijing, which is not seen as a technological match for what it gets from the United States. And the broader Pakistani elite, which has minimal cultural and educational ties with China, does not want to be stuck in Beijing's camp either. There are plenty of reasons for the decline in U.S.-Pakistani relations. The specter of China's checkbook is not one of them.

Andrew Small is a Brussels-based Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund's Asia Program.

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