“Any attack on Pakistan will be construed as an attack on China,” China’s foreign minister bluntly warned last month.
This was shortly after Navy Seals had found and killed Osama bin Laden near a Pakistani army base. Sections of the Washington establishment were sniping directly at the Islamabad regime and the term ‘failed state’ was getting plenty of airing.
But the message from Beijing was clear: it would not tolerate ‘regime change’ in Islamabad.
As US-Pakistan ties have become more strained, Pakistan’s longstanding friendship with China has taken on more importance. “We are like one nation and two countries,” Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani declared during his visit to Beijing last month. Hyperbole perhaps but Premier Wen Jiabao voiced a similar sentiment during his own visit to Islamabad in December. “China and Pakistan are brothers forever,” he gushed. And that sort of language seems to be the norm for one of China’s most enduring strategic relationships, often described as an ‘all-weather friendship’.
That’s been the case since the Sino-Indian war in 1962. From then on, Pakistan has provided a crucial counterweight to one of China’s main regional competitors: India. Pakistan has used the situation to bolster its own rivalry with its larger southern neighbour, as well as offset some of its reliance on the US.
“Pakistan is our Israel,” a Chinese diplomat reportedly explained to an irked US official recently – suggesting how special (and complicated) Beijing views the relationship.
Insiders say China was able to rub up closer to Pakistan in the 1990s (after the Soviet Union’s retreat from Afghanistan made Washington’s interest in relations with Islamabad less pressing).
Of course, the US attitude changed dramatically when its own troops entered Afghanistan in 2001. On the contrary, China is widely credited in Islamabad with staying the course diplomatically. Plus serving as Pakistan’s largest arms supplier: it agreed recently to the sale of 50 advanced fighter jets, something Washington has been reluctant to match.
Prime Minister Gilani has also claimed that the two countries are in negotiations for China to take over operations of Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea, as well as build a naval base nearby. That would help China’s navy protect oil supply routes, although Indian analysts talk of an encirclement plan. Perhaps wary of the diplomatic backlash, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson later denied knowledge of the Gwadar discussions. But that won’t do much to ease Indian concerns.
China’s ties with Pakistan extend beyond the military, including $9 billion in trade.
It is also a major source of technology and financing for infrastructure: for example, Beijing is said to be playing a critical role in Islamabad’s civilian nuclear programme. (It’s built two nuclear power reactors so far and has agreed to build two more).
The China Three Gorges Dam Corporation (not getting the best press at the moment, see Talking Point) has also been contracted to build a hydroelectric dam in Pakistan, and there are talks to build a railway between the two countries (again, India isn’t keen).
So for the foreseeable future, relations look like being warm ones. Good enough, in fact, for some Chinese companies to choose Pakistan as their first international market.
When China Mobile decided to start overseas operations in 2007, it picked Pakistan as a starting point.
“If we can’t succeed in Pakistan, we’d better not go anywhere else,” Wang Jianzhou, the company’s chairman, told reporters at the time, shortly before acquiring a local telecoms firm. (It’s currently the fifth-largest operator in the country).
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