Pakistan’s China Syndrome

September 28, 2011

At the height of Pakistan’s crisis in relations with the United States, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani reminded his Chinese guest of the words he had used to describe its relationship with China. ”Pak-China friendship is higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey.”  In a press release issued by the prime minister’s office during a visit to Islamabad by Chinese Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu, Gilani also promised China that “‘your friends are our friends, your enemies are our enemies and your security is our security.”

It was language designed to show that even after Admiral Mike Mullen’s assertion that the Afghan militant Haqqani network was effectively a   proxy of the Pakistan army, China – Pakistan’s “all weather friend” – stood at its side. The Pakistan media enthusiastically played up Meng’s visit, jumping on a relatively small offer of financial help and a dreamed-of defence pact with China to build up hopes of Chinese support.

Faced with such hyperbole, I flipped across to the website of the People’s Daily to see what it had to say about Pakistan.  At the time I looked, there was no mention of Pakistan. It did however give prominence to a story about China and India holding a strategic dialogue to build economic ties.

The comparison is instructive in so many ways.

First of all Pakistan is not the centre of the world even though those of us who cover it tend to think it is. And China is a big country, setting itself on a trajectory to outstrip the United States. It pays far less attention to India than India does to China, let alone becoming as obsessed with Pakistan’s problems as Pakistan is with casting China in the role of saviour.

Secondly, Pakistan has consistently over-estimated the support it is likely to get from China for decades.  As far back as its 1965 war with India – launched in a failed bid to wrest control of Kashmir – it misjudged China’s willingness to intervene on its behalf.  At the time, Pakistan-China relations were riding high. China had just inflicted a humiliating defeat on India in a 1962 border war. Pakistan had then – in Indian eyes – added insult to injury by reaching a provisional border agreement with China and agreeing to build the strategic Karakoram Highway to link it properly to India’s enemy. Yet during the 1965 war, Pakistan’s expectations of Chinese help were proved disastrously wrong.

At the time of the 1971 war with India – a crisis bigger than the one faced by Pakistan today – China gave no military support when Pakistan was split in two with Indian backing to carve out the new country of Bangladesh. The United States gave little  real help, either, beyond deploying the 7th Fleet to the Bay of Bengal - something that is bitterly remembered by Pakistan – but somehow China’s own record was forgotten.

Indeed history is so stacked up in favour of the argument that Pakistan has consistently over-estimated its likely support from China that it is hard to believe the Pakistan government does not know this already. If it had any doubts it would have cleared these up when the government first sought Chinese financial help in 2008 only to be rebuffed and sent packing to the IMF  - a decision which left Pakistan more vulnerable to U.S. influence.

And even without the historical evidence, it would be clear that China’s concerns about Pakistan-based Islamist militants focused on its own Xinjiang province would mean that Beijing would be unlikely to come out all guns blazing in defence of Pakistan’s right to tolerate or support groups like the Haqqani network. China is also steadily building economic relations with India – which if anything is even more sensitive than the United States to any hint of tolerance for militant groups by Pakistan or its allies.

In other words, it is reasonable to assume the Pakistan government knows full well that there are limits to Chinese support in its confrontation with the United States. And that by extension its “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans” talk is designed for a domestic audience.

And this is where it gets even more interesting. What does the government’s public language about China tell us about Pakistan and particularly its civilian-military relations?

Step back for a moment and consider that Mullen’s comments have created a huge nationalistic backlash in Pakistan. Whether by design or default, the biggest beneficiary of this backlash is the Pakistan army as the one institution which can defend the country against any American military attack. (Watch this “war video” clip from Pakistan television celebrating the prowess of Pakistan’s armed forces to see how the American threats are being played domestically.)

The civilian government has never been able to wrest control over foreign and security policy from the Pakistan army. It had an opportunity after the raid by U.S. forces who found and killed Osama bin Laden on May 2 – a raid which deeply embarrassed the Pakistan army – but did not do so. 

With the latest crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations, English-language newspapers have suggested that the civilian government again seize the opportunity to assert its authority – taking advantage of a multi-party conference called by Prime Minister Gilani for Sept. 29 to discuss the situation. 

 ”If the events of May 2 did not result in attempts to increase civilian oversight, surely elected representatives should seize Pakistan’ s current embarrassment — and the economic and security risk it presents — as an opportunity to try to correct the balance of power,” Dawn newspaper wrote in an editorial.

 The Express Tribune suggested the civilian government was trying to find ”a more sensible and pragmatic approach” than the military, showing the existence of ”two centres of power at work in the country”. While the Pakistan army stands accused by the Americans of running the Haqqani network as a proxy – an allegation it denies – “when the all-party conference is held, hopefully the participants will realise that it is not in Pakistan’s interest to allow terrorists safe havens on its soil or allow such elements to launch attacks on other countries from inside Pakistan,” it said.

So what would a civilian government seeking to assert its influence over foreign policy and adopt a more pragmatic approach do?

1)  Encourage the hawks, the populists and jingoists,  and the anti-American right by insisting that Pakistan has a superpower ally of its own which will defend it down to the deepest ocean and up to the highest mountain?  2) Avoid hyperbole in the interests of convincing the people of Pakistan of the limits of Chinese support and the need to work – somehow – with the United States?

The visit by China’s Meng probably told us more than we realise. It did not tell us very much about what China will do – if past history is anything to go by it will do very little and try to keep itself out of the fray. But it did tell us rather a lot about Pakistan – and the likelihood of the country’s civilian and military leaders closing ranks in the face of American pressure.

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