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U.S. appeals to China to help stabilize Pakistan

The Obama administration has appealed to China to provide training and even military equipment to help Pakistan counter a growing militant threat, U.S. officials said.

The proposal is part of a broad push by Washington to enlist key allies of Pakistan in the effort to stabilize the country. The U.S. is seeking to persuade Islamabad to step up its efforts against militants, while supporting the fragile civilian government and the nation's tottering economy.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, has visited China and Saudi Arabia, another key ally, in recent weeks as part of the effort.

The American appeal to China underscores the importance of Beijing in security issues. Washington considers China to be the most influential country for dealing with isolated, militaristic North Korea. Beijing also plays a crucial role in the international effort to pressure Iran over its nuclear program.

China traditionally has been reluctant to intervene in the affairs of other countries. However, Chinese officials are concerned about the militant threat near its western border, fearing it could destabilize the region and threaten China's growing economic presence in Pakistan.

A senior U.S. official acknowledged that China was hesitant to get more involved, but said, "You can see that they're thinking about it." He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the subject.

U.S. officials believe China is skilled at counterinsurgency, a holdover of the knowledge gained during the country's lengthy civil war that ended with a communist victory in 1949. And with its strong military ties to Pakistan, U.S. officials hope China could help craft a more sophisticated strategy than Islamabad's heavy-handed approach.

The Pakistani military has used artillery and aircraft against Taliban extremists in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas in its ongoing offensive. "They're very focused on hardware," the senior U.S. official said of the Pakistanis. But the fighting has forced more than 2 million civilians to flee, United Nations officials estimate, and a humanitarian crisis looms.

The tide of displaced people could set off a backlash against the campaign among ordinary Pakistanis, many of whom already see the fight as driven by American, rather than Pakistani, interests.

China's strategic alliance with Islamabad dates to the 1960s. Beijing has sold Pakistan billions of dollars' worth of military equipment, including missiles, warships, and tanks.

China also has a huge economic presence in Pakistan. China's ambassador, Luo Zhaohui, said in a speech this month that there are an estimated 10,000 Chinese engineers and technicians working in the country.

But Beijing is increasingly concerned about the Pakistani insurgency, in part because Muslim separatists from the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang inhabited by Uighurs have trained in Pakistani camps and then returned to China.

Officials in Beijing also are concerned because of recurrent kidnappings and killings of Chinese workers in Pakistan. China has repeatedly pressed the Pakistani government to better protect its citizens.

Analysts say the Pakistani government launched an attack on radicals in the Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007 in part because of pressure from China after several of its citizens were briefly kidnapped by militants. More than 100 people died in the assault, and Islamic militants say it represented a turning point in their struggle against the government.

Pakistani officials in Washington acknowledged a lengthy alliance with China.

"Pakistan and China have a time-tested bilateral relationship and Chinese support and cooperation have been crucial for Pakistan at many difficult times in our history," said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S. "At this moment too, we continue to look to China as a trusted friend and partner while laying the foundations of a more enduring strategic relationship with the U.S."

Chinese officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Stephen Cohen, a South Asia specialist at the Brookings Institution, said China and Saudi Arabia wield more influence with Pakistan than does the United States. As a consultant to the U.S. government, Cohen has urged American officials to try to enlist Beijing's help.

"China can be a positive influence," he said. But he added that there may be divisions within the Chinese government, and that the Chinese military, despite close ties to the Pakistani army, may be reluctant to intervene.

Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy, visited China on April 16, and officials of both countries said then that they had agreed to work together on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"We came here to share views on the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan because we share a common danger, a common challenge and a common goal," Holbrooke said at the time.

Lisa Curtis, a former congressional analyst now at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank, said it would be difficult to persuade China to assume any military role.

But she said the Chinese are concerned about the spillover effects of the Pakistani insurgency.

"The Chinese may try to deal with this privately," she said. "They won't want to make any public statements that might embarrass the Pakistanis."

paul.richter@latimes.com

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