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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

As U.S.-Pakistan ties cool, China waits with open arms

UNITED NATIONS — Hillary Clinton descended upon Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, in a political damage control mode. The Secretary of State arrived days after Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in a flourish of rhetoric, described the People’s Republic of China as his country’s “best friend.” And just weeks earlier, the Premier told Afghan President Hamid Karzai to downgrade his ties with the USA and to ally with Pakistan and China.


Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, right, and China's Premier Wen Jiabao inspect honor guards during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, May 18.      Reuters/Jason Lee
Hillary received a frosty reception from one of America’s most important if not amiable allies in the global war on terror.

In the days and weeks following the U.S. Navy Seals killing of Osama bin Laden, embarrassingly within stone’s throw of the Pakistan Military Academy, questions have been rightly raised about the complicity and collaboration of elements of the Pakistani military in shielding the world’s most wanted terrorist. Given that Pakistan purports to be a key American ally against both Taliban terror in neighboring Afghanistan and the wider Islamic jihadi movement, American skepticism is richly warranted.

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Nonetheless diplomats on both sides concede the USA/Pakistan relationship is at its lowest level since before the September 2001 attacks on America. Still, as Secretary of State Clinton wisely opined, “Pakistan should understand that anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories will not make problems disappear.”

But as bi-partisan political frustrations grow in the United States over the commitment and spirit of the Pakistani alliance, Beijing stands at the ready to exploit the rifts between Islamabad and Washington. The PRC’s long-standing relationship with Pakistan, is reflected in the fact that Beijing remains Pakistan’s largest weapons supplier and third largest trading partner.

Independent Pakistan was one of the first major countries to recognize communist China in 1951. Traditionally political ties and trade between the neighbors have been close but in recent years have somewhat been eclipsed by the USA. Recently Pakistan Prime Minister Gilani, while on an official visit to Beijing, described China as Pakistan’s “best friend.” But beyond the rhetoric, new arms deals between the Asian states will see deliveries of JF-17 fighter jets to the Pakistan military.

Indeed, military spending comprises 16 percent of Pakistan’s budget; education gets a paltry 1 percent. While Pakistan has seen massive infusions of American military and economic aid, $20 billion since 2001, the fact remains that corruption and more especially infiltration of militants at the highest levels of the government, has allowed Pakistan to play a decidedly duplicitous game.

China is reinforcing its long-standing geopolitical relationship with Pakistan by helping the embattled country to provide much needed aid to a moribund economy. Significantly, the PRC plans to help build ports on Pakistan’s Arabian seacoast as much to help the flow of commerce as equally and more cynically to geographically surround India’s eastern maritime flank. PRC is taking control of the port of Gwadar and is investing $250 million in development bringing the port to naval standards.

A joint communiqué following the visit stressed the PRC developing a “strategic partnership” with Pakistan.

There’s a clear and continuing vortex of PRC geopolitical interests in cultivating Pakistan as a political ally, for containment of India, and as a counterweight from the U.S. sphere.

This Islamic country of 177 million people, has nonetheless been a major victim of Taliban terrorism on both sides of the Afghan border, and of vicious sectarian strife within Islamic communities. But at the same time Pakistan has played a double game with Taliban militants, often undercutting American and Afghan government policy.

Though the killing of Osama Bin Laden has been a major victory for Washington’s determined efforts against Al Qaida, the political collateral damage had been the USA’s long standing, and now very strained ties with Pakistan. The PRC is more than willing to fill the void as American power recedes from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Washington is witnessing a dangerous but deliberate tilt by Pakistan to the PRC and away from the USA.

Political prophesies that Pakistan has evolved into a Failed State, complete with a loose-cannon nuclear arsenal, must not become self-fulfilling. The Obama Administration has foolishly allowed itself to be “played” by Pakistan with the results serving neither American interests, nor the interests of a truly stable Pakistan. Both sides are finger-pointing in a pointless rift which must be resolved soon. The People’s Republic of China stands to profit.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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