The Back up Plan
Forced to review its relationship with the US, Pakistan accelerates diplomatic relations with China. Only, it is not clear what this economic giant wants from its South Asian neighbor and how much is it willing to give back?
Our cover story this month attempts to highlight China’s diplomatic and strategic role in South Asia and analyze the impact of the PAK-US
relationship on China’s involvement.
The United States and Pakistan have had spats many times in the past. But like tiffs between lovers, they have been short-lived, without any serious impact on Pakistan. After sulking for a while, they embrace each other again.
This time though, the stakes are higher. America is bogged down in the longest war in its history. It has entered the eleventh year of its war in Afghanistan. It has 100,000 troops on the ground with another 30,000 from NATO. And, though every once in a while the generals try to paint an encouraging picture, the fact remains that the US is in a self-made quagmire. In July 2010 President Obama replaced Gen. Mcchrystal with Gen. Petreus to head the US and allied forces in Afghanistan. Everybody who mattered had been fawning over him for his brilliant success in Iraq against Al Qaeda.
There his modus operandi was to raise militias of mostly Sunnis who would agree to lay down their arms against coalition forces, patrol neigh- borhoods, and fight against other Sunni insurgents. Called ‘Awakening Councils,’ they were paid regular salaries and armed by the US military. They helped the US troops target Al-qaeda in Iraq more precisely and avoid collateral damage.
Basking in his glory Gen. Petreus, therefore, immediately set about to repeat the Iraq recipe in Afghanistan. He tried to raise militias out of Taliban in the same fashion, with offers of money and arms. But this was not Iraq. Afghans have always hated
the gora. In the past it was the British; now it is the American. When his efforts failed, Petreus let loose a spate of night raids by Special Forces. Their cruelties further alienated the local people. Besides, analysts have questioned the authenticity of ISAF claims about the number of Taliban killed and captured and call them exaggerated.
Petreus was so frustrated that at one time he even facilitated flying in a so-called Taliban negotiator on a NATO plane to meet President Karzai, without checking his credentials. It was later discovered that the man was an imposter. The hero of Iraq failed and has been replaced. But there is no sign of a silver lining in the dark cloud that hangs over the occupation forces in Afghanistan.
Lately, therefore, the US has been turning on more heat on its whipping boy, Pakistan, to pull its chestnuts out of the fire. US generals and lawmakers alike have been firing broadsides at Pakistan. They have accused its intelligence agency (ISI) of assisting the “Haqqani network” to attack and kill American troops in Afghanistan. These allegations have been backed by threats ranging from stoppage of financial aid, to direct action against their perceived enemy inside Pakistan.
However, it was the audacious “invasion” of Pakistan by US Special Forces on May 2 to kill Bin Laden that triggered worst fears about the country’s security. Therefore, Prime Minister Gilani’s May 17-21 visit to China assumed special significance and received widespread media attention, even though it was a sheer coincidence because the visit had been planned long in advance to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of Sino-pak diplomatic ties on May 21.
In fact, China was the first country to show support for Pakistan following the raid against Bin Laden which provided a distinct counterpoint to the criticisms from Washington. “Pakistan and China are close friends and good neighbors. Our allweather friendship is deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of our two peoples,” Gilani said in a speech at a cultural forum in the eastern city of Suzhou before going to Beijing. “PakistanChina friendship epitomizes complete understanding, full trust, mutual cooperation and harmony. It is an abiding friendship based on shared values and ideals,” he stated. Earlier in an interview with China’s official Xinhua news agency, Gilani remarked: “We are proud to have China as our best and most trusted friend, and China will always find Pakistan standing beside it at all times.”
Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, on the other hand, apprised Gilani of his message to the US to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty and realize its contributions, and sacrifices, in the war on terror.
The hearty welcome Gilani received and the statements of solidarity made by both sides irked Americans who felt as though they had purchased Pakistan’s body and soul with their money. Republican Senator James Risch from Idaho was so roiled, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that continued aid to Pakistan was “a hard sell to the American people” when cashstrapped Washington sends help, only to see “the head of Pakistan go to China and… say ‘you’re our best friend’…frankly, I’m getting tired of it, and I think Americans are getting tired of it as far as shoveling money in there at people who just flat don’t like us,” he said.
But the senator should have known the hard fact that Sino-pak relations have always been on an even keel. They never witnessed the like of ups and downs as in the case of USPak relations. The simple reason for this deep trust is that although China has also given economic, technical and military assistance to Pakistan, yet it never sought to interfere in Pakistan’s domestic or foreign policy or ask for special facilities in return.
China is not in the king-making business in Pakistan. Its ambassador does not go about hobnobbing with politicians of all stripes. Nor does he hold receptions for lesbians and gays. Nor does the Chinese spy agency - if it has one - hold drink and dance parties for Pakistani TV anchors. Chinese spooks do not go about spying inside Pakistan. And most importantly, China does not care about whether it is a Musharraf or a Zardari as the president of Pakistan.
Above all, China enjoys sufficient leverage with the U.S. It is therefore in an ideal position to assist in repairing fractured US-PAK relations.
China was the first country to show support for Pakistan following the raid against Bin Laden which provided a distinct counterpoint to the criticisms from Washington.
The writer is a senior political analyst and former editor of Southasia Magazine.