The visit of China’s President Xi Jing Ping to Islamabad and the promised commitment of some $45 billion to develop a new “silk road” through Pakistan could be a stunning geopolitical as well as economic development Of course, Pakistan and China have enjoyed a long-standing relationship in part impelled by India’s role as a rival and threat to both. It was President Yahya Khan who lubricated the Nixon opening to China in the early 1970’s serving as the very silent matchmaker between Beijing and Washington.
From his first days in office beginning in 2008, President Asif Ali Zardari courted China. While he will get no credit from the PML-N government headed by Nawaz Sharif, Zardari’s patient and assiduous handling of Beijing laid the groundwork for this new relationship. And it was President Zardari who called for creating a new silk road and investment to that end on his first trip to America when he met President Barack Obama. Sadly, Obama’s White House was dismissive of that vision.
That Islamabad has turned east not surprising. When George W. Bush famously declared Pakistan as a U.S. non-NATO major ally, Pakistan expected far more than it got from its American partner in assisting in the global war on terror. That relationship always suffered from mutual misperceptions and expectations generating inherent flaws and cracks that would come apart over time and under stress.
That unhappy history is too well known. After the attacks of September 11th, President and General Pervez Musharraf was encouraged or bullied to join America in destroying al Qaeda then headquartered in and protected by Taliban-run Afghanistan. Afghanistan had always been of great strategic important to Islamabad in part because it provided “strategic depth” in the event of hostilities with India and in part because Pakistan’s intelligence service, ISI, enjoyed influence over parts of the Taliban organization.
It was naïve to think that Pakistan would alter those strategic interests for unlimited support of the U.S. war on terror. Until last year, Pakistan distinguished between “good (i.e. Afghan) and “bad (i.e. Pakistani)” Taliban by aiding the former while taking on the latter. Further, while the U.S. believed it was financially generous with coalition support funding for the Pakistan military in battling al Qaeda and later with the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act that provided $1.5 billion a year for five years in assistance, Islamabad saw that aid as miserly coming from an economic superpower.
Politically, because President Obama did not hold President Zardari in high regard, Army Chief of Staff Ashraf Pervez Kayani was treated as the de facto head of government bypassing civilian authority. Then, the case of CIA contractor Raymond Davis who shot and killed two Pakistanis and finally was freed with “blood money” paid to the victims’ families brought the relationship to its nadir. That nadir was eclipsed with Seal Team Six’s raid in Islamabad that killed Osama bin Laden conducted without informing the Pakistani government in advance. Exacerbated by drone strikes, positive Pakistani perceptions of America were measured in single digits. And the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan leaving that country close to civil war was not calming to Islamabad.
Along came China. From Beijing’s perspective, Pakistan had been a long-term friend and potential strategic ally against India. More importantly, China understood that in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Pakistan had been a thriving economy and could become one again based in part by opening a new silk road connecting east and west and bringing China closer to the Middle East and Africa where its economic interests were rapidly expanding. Developing the Pakistani seaport of Gwadar bordering on the Persian Gulf would be the logistical springboard for this link up.
Additionally, China is providing Pakistan with eight submarines. Reports of transferring stealthy jet fighters and other military technologies to Pakistan may or may not be accurate. But China certainly recognizes the geoeconomic and geopolitical importance of a strategic relationship with Pakistan.
Some in the U.S. will view China as usurping U.S. influence. Others may argue for closer ties with India to compensate for this new Sino-Pak relationship. While both views are understandable, each is flawed.
Stability in the region is dependent on a prosperous and stable Pakistan, a condition that is very much in doubt given current circumstances. Despite its efforts, the U.S. could not deliver on that promise. If China can, the region will be better off. Perhaps the wisdom of Sun Tzu can meet the vision of Pakistan’s chief founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah without alienating India. The U.S. should be very supportive of that prospect. That it will is very much in doubt.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, Senior Advisor at Washington D.C.’s Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security. His latest book is A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace.