Pakistan: Rethinking its relationship with China?

December 22, 2008

For Pakistan-watchers, I recommend reading this op-ed in the Daily Times calling on Pakistan to rethink its relationship with China, traditionally revered as an all-weather friend which will remain reliable even as other allies — like the United States — come and go.

“China has positioned itself for a leading role in global affairs, and will not sacrifice this advantage for the sake of any emotional connection with another state,” writes Shahzad Chaudhry. “As a mature society, the Chinese are realistic enough to realise the advantages and disadvantages of their linkages. Like the Chinese, Pakistanis need to discard their emotions and objectively review and redefine their linkages in view of their own national interests and the new global realities.”

I’ve been puzzling over China’s approach to Pakistan for a while, most recently in this post about China’s decision to support a United Nations Security Council ban on the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Pakistani charity accused of being a front for the Laskhar-e-Taiba.  Since that followed a refusal by China to bail out Pakistan’s economy – forcing the government to turn to the IMF — I’d begun to wonder whether the “all weather” formula no longer applied.

So it’s interesting to read about the relationship from a Pakistani perspective.  China’s support, writes Chaudhry, had always come at a price, and was counted in numerous, mostly defence-related, projects. ”The large Chinese corporate presence in Pakistan enjoys a reverence beyond any in comparison. But it should not be forgotten that China has always acted on its own interests. Consider that the South Asian region is changing rapidly, with India not only emerging as the most prominent political and economic entity, but also huge market of great interest to China. In addition, China has to consider the American presence in Afghanistan and the Islamist militancy in Xinjiang,” he writes.

“Unfortunately, the reverence that has been bestowed to the Pak-China relationship has blinded most Pakistanis to the ever-changing realities of this relationship. China changed from a closed society to a progressively open one under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1980s and has not looked back since, and has continued to define its relationship with the rest of the world according to its interests. Yet the Pakistani leadership has remained pegged to the historicity of the Pak-China relationship,” he adds.

“For China, in some assessments and in line with their current global leanings, we are but an unnecessary appendage, troublesome because of our image and the difficulties we pose in Xinjiang. Gone are the days when China depended on us as a window to the world; now the world is at China’s doorstep. We should thus devise our policies based on existing imperatives and not on emotional determinants.”

Those are harsh words for a country already under severe pressure from the United States and India over the role of Pakistan-based Islamist militants. But do they also offer an opportunity? Pakistan has often in the past been caught up in  other countries’ fights — during the Cold War, the United States used it to help defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan; then after India and China fought a border war in 1962, Pakistan became a player in a larger struggle between the two Asian giants. If, as Choudhry suggests, China is no longer willing to play that game, does it not give Pakistan an opportunity to take care of itself, rather than being dragged into other countries’ battles that by its own admission have often brought it more harm than good? 

Questions, obviously, for the optimists out there…

(File photo: Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing)

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