Choosing your friends: Pakistan, the U.S. and China

September 23, 2008

President Bush meets President Zardari in New York/Jim YoungWhile Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari is in the United States discussing U.S. military strikes across Pakistan’s border, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is on a far less publicised trip to China to talk about defence cooperation. The timing may be coincidental, but the potential implications of the United States and China playing competing roles in Pakistan are huge.

Pakistan has always seen China as a much more reliable friend, while support from Washington has waxed and waned in line with U.S. interests (Islamabad has never quite forgiven the United States for using it to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and then dropping it when the Russians were driven out in 1989.) 

And nowadays the difference in the approaches of Pakistan’s two giant allies is even more striking.  While the United States and Pakistan argue about U.S. cross-border strikes, China has quietly reaffirmed its commitment to keeping Pakistan stable.

File photo of General Ashfaq KayaniIn a condolence message sent after this weekend’s Marriott Hotel bombing, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said, “As a good neighbour and all-time friend of Pakistan, China will always support the unremitting efforts made by the government and people of Pakistan to safeguard the country’s stability.”

Of course there is no reason to jump to the conclusion the United States and China will become outright rivals over Pakistan — both have a stake in Pakistan’s stability, and in the past both have managed to maintain close ties with Islamabad without tripping over each other. But the current scenario certainly increases the chances of friction.

Add to that the fact that the strategic picture in South Asia has changed dramatically under the Bush administration. The United States has rewritten its relationship with India — which was still seen as in the Soviet camp back in the days of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan –turning it into a crucial ally in Asia and potential bulwark against Chinese influence. It sealed that transformation by reaching a deal with India effectively recognising it as a nuclear power, ignoring any misgivings in China (India’s nuclear weapons programme was developed as much, if not more, as a defence against China as against Pakistan.)

So it will be interesting to see what Kayani brings back from China and Zardari from the United States in the way of promises of support.  Will the United States and China be able to work together to pull Pakistan out of its current crisis? Or are they drifting into a situation where they end up opposing each other?


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