Pakistan’s embarrassing rhetoric towards Beijing is a sign of strategic desperation
The playing off of two stronger patrons by a smaller or weaker country is a time-honored tactic in international politics. So it is no surprise that Pakistan seeks to create geopolitical leverage by nuzzling up to China whenever a downdraft occurs in its relations with the United States. But Islamabad’s current approach to Beijing is striking on two counts.
The first is the profusion of fulsome, even embarrassing, metaphors that Pakistan issues in an attempt to inveigle China. The second is how ineffective the sweet talking has been in enticing Beijing to attach itself ever closer to the Islamic Republic, or in spurring Washington into fits of jealousy.
Power politics and well-placed flattery have always been central features of Islamabad’s diplomacy. Thus Ayub Khan, the military ruler in the 1950s, secured vital U.S. security assistance to the fledging Pakistani state by boasting about how it played the role of Washington’s “most allied ally” in Asia.
But consider how over the top Islamabad’s rhetoric vis-à-vis China has become in recent years. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has the bizarre habit of waxing lyrically about ties with Beijing. In his usual formulation, the relationship is one that is “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey.” He repeated this curious phrase last week when he made a brief visit to the Chinese port city of Tianjin and then once more in a subsequent meeting with Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang on the sidelines of the Bo’ao Forum for Asia, an annual conclave on the island of Hainan that some dub “Asia’s Davos.” For good measure at the latter event, he added a profession of strategic allegiance: “China’s friend is our friend, and China’s enemy is ours” and Pakistan “considers China’s security as our own security.”
Following the unilateral U.S. commando mission that killed Osama bin Laden last May, President Asif Ali Zardari likewise announced that the China-Pakistan friendship is “not matched by any other relationship between two sovereign countries,” while Gilani broadcast how Pakistan and China “are like two countries and one nation.” And in September, following Admiral Mike Mullen’s blunt denunciation of Pakistani policies in Afghanistan, Interior Minister Rehman Malik declared to his Chinese counterpart, Meng Jianzhu, who was then visiting Islamabad, that “China is always there for us in the most difficult of times.”
True enough, Pakistan has reaped valuable strategic benefits from China through the decades, including key assistance to its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Beijing is also the largest supplier of military equipment to Islamabad. And the reported presence of Chinese personnel, including People’s Liberation Army engineering and construction units, in the Ladakh region marginally enhances Pakistan’s deterrence posture vis-à-vis India.
But China also has shown a stark reluctance to be encumbered by Pakistan’s deep internal problems. Following Gilani’s trip to Beijing in the wake of the Abbottabad raid, Islamabad put out the word that it was seeking a formal military pact with the People’s Republic and that the Chinese navy was welcome to take up residence in Gwadar, a strategic port at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Yet Beijing rebuffed both overtures.
Moreover, just after Meng’s visit last September, Beijing announced that a Chinese mining company was abandoning what was to be Pakistan’s largest foreign-investment project due to security concerns. Indeed, for all of the rhetoric about Islamabad’s “all-weather friendship” with Beijing, economic interactions between the two are minimal and China has been stinging in doling out financial aid. As the Heritage Foundation notes, “Pakistani media routinely report huge numbers for investment and financing with the People’s Republic of China, numbers that cannot be verified by any independent source, including by the Chinese government or the Chinese government or the Chinese companies supposedly involved.”
Additionally, while China uses Pakistan as a strategic cat’s paw vis-à-vis India, it also understands that its interests would be ill-served if New Delhi were driven into Washington’s out-stretched arms. Add to this the allure of Indian markets, which is much greater than anything Islamabad can offer to Beijing. Tellingly, the Chinese media last September was more focused on the inaugural session of the China-India economic dialogue than on Meng’s trip to Islamabad.
Despite Pakistan’s manifold efforts at manipulating perception, few are buying the notion that it can easily change dance partners. Washington policymakers realize that ties with Beijing make a poor substitute for the security and economic partnership with the United States, however epically dysfunctional it may be. The Obama administration has good reasons to patch up relations with Islamabad, including re-opening NATO supply lines to Afghanistan – although they do not appear quite so vital as before given the increased reliance on routes through Central Asia– as well as coaxing Pakistani cooperation on ending the Afghan conflict and stabilizing a nuclear-armed regime confronted with massive internal security problems.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides is currently in Islamabad to see if he can make headway on these objectives. In response to Pakistani demands, the Obama administration has offered some concessions on its signature use of drone strikes in the tribal areas that provide shelter for militant forces fighting in Afghanistan. But it is worth noting that the fear of Islamabad slipping further into Beijing’s orbit is not a motivating factor. Indeed, Washington seems content to continue withholding military assistance until Islamabad becomes more mindful of U.S. security needs.
Behind the puffery towards Beijing, one senses that Pakistani leaders realize they hold a weak hand. As the largest English-language newspaper in the country recently lamented:
“We as a country may not figure as prominently in China’s scheme of things as we believe we do. Islamabad may be valuable for Beijing in strategic terms, and that leads us to the military and civilian nuclear cooperation between the two countries, but is Pakistan important for China in economic and political terms as well?”
The ardent courting of Beijing may well be an effort to compensate for the lack of Pakistan’s appeal but it also advertises Islamabad’s strategic desperation, which will only increase in the coming years. As the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan gathers pace, so too will Washington’s disassociation with Pakistan. Islamabad will no doubt try to offset this development by trying to further cement its links with China, only to find that there are real limits to Beijing’s interest.
In the end, Pakistan will likely end up bereft of real suitors. For all of the anti-Americanism coursing through Pakistani politics these days, Islamabad might just come to regret the lack of U.S. attention.
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