In the aftermath of America's successful attack on Osama Bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad near Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, there was speculation from both Americans and Pakistanis that Pakistan would abandon its relationship with the US for an exclusive one with China. One rumor out of Pakistan indicated that China was going to "give" the Pakistani air force 50 new JF-17 fighters. It was later clarified that China was selling the aircraft on terms that had been worked out long before.
There was also a report that the Pakistani government had offered to allow China to build a Naval base at the new Chinese-built port of Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea. The same reports said that the Chinese firmly rejected the offer.
As relations between Washington and Islamabad spiral ever lower, we hear that China stands ready to replace America as Pakistan's main ally and supporter. Beijing's relationship with Islamabad is an old one; and unlike the US, Beijing is not a preferred scapegoat for the ills of that society. Timothy Hoyt of the Naval War College recently pointed out that, "forced to choose between the United States and China, Pakistan would probably opt to align itself more closely with China."
For China, however, as Dr. Hoyt also points out, "the costs of a closer relationship with Pakistan may outweigh the benefits." Not only does China have no reason to complicate its relations with the US, India, and the central Asian states of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the rest --- all of which feel victimized or threatened to one degree of another by Pakistan's support for aggressive Islamism. China itself has been the target of Islamists in its far western province of Sinkiang.
Also problematic from China's point of view is Pakistan's economic mess. Francis Fukuyama describes the Pakistani society as characterized by "... high levels of social stratification and quasi-feudal institutions." Unlike China or India, it is not an 'emerging' economic power, but is large, unstable and mostly impoverished.
Given Pakistan's Muslim identity, it is ironic that the more that 50 percent leap in the price of pork in China could have a greater impact on its geopolitical position than all of their complicating maneuvering with Islamist terror groups. For Beijing, properly feeding the Chinese people comes first, everything else comes second.
China's refusal to support North Korea, which is culturally and politically much closer to it than Pakistan, should be a warning to Islamabad of what to expect if it completely breaks with Washington. Pakistan and the rest of the Indian subcontinent are outside of China's traditional sphere of influence. A bold move to reach beyond its traditional hegemonic zone would set off alarms throughout Asia, Europe and Africa.
America provides Pakistan with vital economic support, not just the $1.4 billion in bilateral development aid -- not to mention the roughly $1,5 billion in military assistance. At least as important is the fact that the US has long helped Pakistan obtain favorable treatment by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The US also has made considerable efforts over the years to integrate Pakistan into the global economy.
Perhaps in ten or twenty years, China will have both the will and the capacity to help Pakistan graduate into the ranks of the "emerging" economies. For the moment, however, Beijing has other priorities.
To import energy, China might prefer pipelines that moved through central Asia, where there would be fewer problems with local governments and where the pipelines would be less vulnerable to terrorist or bandits.
Further, if China were to import, for example, minerals from Africa and other nations by way of Pakistan, there would be a "cost" question. For China to unload them in Pakistan and then send them back to China by truck or rail could add enormously to their "landed" cost. It would be much less expensive for China to have goods delivered directly to China by ship.
China nevertheless agreed to upgrade the trans-Himalaya Karakorum Highway that connects China's Xinjiang province with Pakistan. At the moment, the highway is a prestige project that attracts tourists and helps both countries integrate government institutions into these isolated mountain regions. The road may be both a strategic asset for China and a way to bind Pakistan ever more tightly to China's economically depressed far western area. It is doubtful that it will ever carry significant food or other aid from China into Pakistan.
In spite of all the anger and frustration on both sides, therefore, the US and Pakistan might just have to make the best of a bad situation. Of course, things would be a lot easier for everyone if the elites in Islamabad, Karachi and the Punjab could find someone else to blame for Pakistan's problems.