Pakistan and China are celebrating 60 years of close diplomatic relations. While economic ties are growing, experts agree the Pak-China is a friendship based more on strategic purposes than on business.
In a matter of only a few weeks, US-Pakistani relations have taken a series of hard hits. There is growing mutual distrust since the US special forces operation that killed al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden at the beginning of May in Pakistan. The US was quick to point the finger at Pakistan, accusing Islamabad of not doing enough to fight terrorism, whereas Beijing - in a show of support - was quick to defend Pakistan. With China and Pakistan celebrate 60 years of close diplomatic relations this year, the question is whether or not the openly celebrated Pak-China friendship is really as positive as the leaders of the two countries would like others to believe.
American experts are not so sure. China has concerns of its own, says Jonathan Pollack, China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., especially when it comes to its own Muslim Uighur population. He says, "evidence of uncertainty and instability, the fragile nature of ruling authority in Pakistan – these are things that I believe the Chinese worry about a great deal." But one main difference to Pakistan’s other ally, the US, is that China’s rulers take a very different approach when it comes to differences of opinion. Pollack says Beijing prefers to keeps its concerns or criticism quiet. "The Chinese are very averse to going public with those kinds of issues and not just with Pakistan. They will not subject long-term partners or seldom subject them to anything that could be seen as explicit, overt criticism. If they have issues, they discuss them with them privately."
More than just words of comfort
That is one reason Pakistan might want to rely less on the US and more on China for financial aid, for example. But Stephen Cohen, South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution, argues that Beijing, unfortunately for Pakistan, cannot take Washington's place. He says Beijing follows its own interests and sees Pakistan as "a valuable strategic partner, as an access point to the Middle East." But in terms of aid and development and in terms of "serious economic development or promoting democratization or normalization of Pakistani politics, the Chinese keep their hands off of that completely. And the Pakistanis appreciate it. They’re tired of being lectured to by Americans."
Especially now, Islamabad must be happy to be able to turn to Beijing, for more than just words of comfort. In addition to agreeing to increase bilateral trade to 10 billion USD by 2012 and to work more closely in fighting terrorism, China is also helping Pakistan expand its nuclear capacities – a new reactor has just been built and two more are being planned – and also to deliver twenty fighter jets to its good friend. Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani recently went on a four-day trip to China and expressed his gratitude by saying that Pakistanis appreciate that in all difficult circumstances China has stood with them. He called China a true, time-tested and all-weather friend.
Through thick and thin
Imtiaz Gul, a DW correspondent based in Islamabad, believes that "all-weather" is indeed the appropriate term for the Pak-China friendship, especially if you compare it to the US-Pakistan relationship. Gul thinks there is a big difference between how the two giants treat their little friend. He says Pakistan has always treated China as a friendly country because on many awkward occasions, China remained the "only contact for Pakistan." Compared to the US, "there is a long history of going back on promises by the US on many occasions. And also I think the continued string of allegations from the US, the Pentagon and CIA also fuels this anti-American sentiment in Pakistan."
As China is expanding its nuclear power, it is also helping Pakistan build new nuclear power plantsAs China is expanding its nuclear power, it is also helping Pakistan build new nuclear power plants
Pakistan foreign policy experts believe it best for Pakistan to balance its partnerships – last but not least to keep the US and China in check. Tanveer Ahmad Khan, a former federal secretary of Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says Pakistan is in a difficult situation with regards to its relationship to the US. He says that Pakistan has relied heavily on the United States and the West in the past 10 years. But "at the moment, the relationship with the US is not all that good and naturally there is pressure coming from the Pakistani parliament and Pakistani public opinion that Pakistan should also strengthen its other relationships, that we have been too preoccupied, that we have put all our eggs in the American basket."
Nonetheless, US-Experts like Stephen Cohen from the Brookings Institution believes the Chinese are concerned about a "breakdown in Pakistan," as instability could possibly lead to a nuclear confrontation in the region. That is why the promotion of stability is of vital importance and that, Cohen points out, is one issue on which China, the United States and India can all agree.