Could Pakistan dump the U.S. for ‘all-weather friend’ China?

With every new trough in U.S.-Pakistan relations, talk among Pakistanis of paring down their dependence on Washington and throwing in with China grows louder.

Just days after the U.S. accused Pakistan’s premier spy agency of aiding insurgent attacks against U.S. targets in Afghanistan, Chinese Vice Premier Meng Jianzhu appeared this week in Islamabad reassuring Pakistani leaders that China backed Pakistan’s efforts to protect its sovereignty.

The vice premier’s comments apparently referred to Pakistani worries of a future U.S. airstrike or targeted ground operation against Taliban-allied insurgents in the tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani beamed when talking about his country’s friendship with China, deeming it “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey.”


But could Pakistan ever afford to turn away from the U.S. as an ally and replace it with China, which Islamabad routinely calls its “all-weather friend?”

Analysts say such a move is highly unlikely. With nearly $9 billion in annual trade with Pakistan, China is Islamabad’s biggest trading partner, as well as its leading arms supplier. But it could never replace the billions of dollars in economic and military aid that Pakistan gets from the United States, experts say, as well as billions more in loans from international lenders heavily influenced by the U.S., including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

“If Pakistan thinks China will compensate for the loss of American ties, they are overestimating,” says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based security analyst. “The kind of economic assistance that Pakistan gets from the U.S. cannot be replaced by the Chinese. And the Chinese recognize that they cannot do it.”

Yet even if the notion of China becoming Pakistan’s dominant foreign benefactor is unrealistic, Pakistan doesn’t hesitate to use its strong ties with Beijing — and the prospect of deepening those ties — as leverage against Washington. The tactic becomes particularly evident during moments of crisis in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

After the U.S. commando raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May in the Pakistani military city of Abbottabad, a secret, unilateral operation that Pakistanis decried as a blatant breach of their country’s sovereignty, Gilani was welcomed by Chinese officials in Beijing with a gift of 50 JF-17 fighter jets. Gilani also heard comforting words from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who advised the U.S. to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty.

The assertion last week by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, that one of the most dangerous factions in the Afghan Taliban insurgency, the Haqqani network, was “a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency deeply angered Pakistanis and prompted officials to seek out expressions of solidarity from long-standing allies like China and Saudi Arabia.

Mullen bluntly accused the ISI of helping Haqqani militants in attacking the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Sept. 13 and in a truck bombing in Afghanistan’s Wardak province Sept. 10 that injured more than 70 American troops. Pakistani officials have vehemently rejected the allegations.

“Clearly Pakistan is playing that card, whether it’s the China card or the Saudi card,” said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and an expert on South Asia affairs. “They would like to show themselves, and the U.S. and the rest of the world, that they have other friends if the U.S. seeks to make trouble with them.”


Pakistan’s ties with China date to 1950, when Pakistan became one of the first countries to recognize the communist government of the People’s Republic of China.

Beijing has invested heavily in several major infrastructure projects in Pakistan. They include nuclear power plants, gold and copper mines, major highways and the construction of a deep-water port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, envisioned as a future strategic site for Persian Gulf oil destined for China.

Beijing also sees its alliance with Pakistan as a valuable counterweight to its chief South Asian rival, India. For its part, Pakistan has looked for ways to ratchet up the relationship. In an unusual decision announced this month, officials in Sindh province said they would require all students in sixth grade and higher to learn Chinese, beginning in 2013.

While Pakistan’s ties with China have grown stronger, its relationship with the U.S. has been weakened by deep mutual distrust.


Lawmakers in Washington have threatened to freeze all economic and military aid to Islamabad if Pakistan doesn’t act against the Haqqani. The network uses the North Waziristan tribal region along the Afghanistan border to launch suicide bombings and other strikes on U.S., North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Afghan forces in eastern Afghanistan and Kabul.

Some Pakistanis believe that with China’s backing, their country could withstand whatever punitive action Washington takes.

“If the U.S. does this, of course China has promised us that they will stand by Pakistan in every condition,” said Hamayoun Khan, an expert in Pakistan-China affairs and a former analyst with Pakistan’s Institute for Strategic Studies. “China has said it considers Pakistan as a core interest.... China has made it clear that Pakistan is a trusted ally. So anything done against Pakistan would be considered an act against China.”

Other experts, however, say China’s ambitions to become an economic superpower supersede its relationship with Pakistan. Though Pakistan and its role in South Asia are important, China takes care to avoid undermining crucial, complex ties with the U.S. and the West.


“China’s relations with the U.S. are extremely important,” said Rizvi, the security analyst. “They have investments in the U.S., and U.S. multinational corporations are investing in China. And the Chinese have long-term goals of becoming an economic giant on a global scale. So they’re not going to act in favor of Pakistan and in the process disrupt their relations with the U.S.”

China also has its own counter-terrorism concerns involving Pakistan: Islamist Uighur separatists who Beijing says train in northwestern Pakistan and then slip across the border to carry out attacks in the Xinjiang region. China has been pressing Pakistan to clamp down on Uighur separatists training in tribal regions along the Afghan border. In late July, Uighurs conducted a series of ambushes on police and firefighters in the western Chinese city of Kashgar, leaving 22 dead.

“I don’t think the Pakistani government’s perception that China comes to do business without any preconditions — that it doesn’t have any counter-terrorism concerns — is altogether right,” said Ed Husain, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Despite what the Pakistanis would wish to convey to the West, the relationship with China is not as deep or as free-ranging as Pakistanis would want us to believe.”