All-Weather Concerns: How Much Can Pakistan Expect From China?
The last few months have been rife with speculation about Beijing’s willingness to fill the void if American financial and military support for Pakistan were to be curtailed. One minute, China’s early transfer of JF-17 fighter jets and takeover of Gwadar port supposedly portended the founding of a new alliance. The next, an announcement that one of the individuals behind the July attacks in Kashgar had received training in Pakistan was being heralded as a sign of rift. But almost every dramatic development has proved to be less significant at second glance. The statements from Xinjiang were quietly walked back. Claims by Pakistan’s defence minister that an agreement had been reached for Chinese companies to assume the running of Gwadar were met with an explicit denial that talks had even taken place. And the real story of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s visit to Beijing in May turned out not to be about fighter jets or ports, but about China rebuffing requests for a defence pact. The combined result has been to emphasise that far from brimming with strategic potential, the China-Pakistan relationship is now increasingly pushing up against its limits.
Since the May 2 Abbottabad raid and subsequent downward spiral in the US-Pakistan relationship, Pakistani leaders have been even more eager than usual to play up their friendship with China. However sober about it they are in private, it has been useful to suggest both to their public and to Washington that Pakistan has options beyond the US. Beijing has been rather less enthusiastic. Not only does China want to avoid being stuck with the tab if the US were to withdraw economic assistance, it is also wary of getting on the wrong side of US policy shifts in the region. Beijing’s apprehensions about the implications of a Western withdrawal from Afghanistan had already encouraged it to start a modest process of cooperation with the US there. Both before and after Gilani’s visit to China — which took place in the aftermath of the bin Laden killing — Chinese diplomats proved unusually willing to volunteer detailed briefings to their American counterparts about what they were (and, more importantly, were not) offering Pakistan. Beijing does not want to be seen by Washington as an active enabler of the more nefarious elements of Pakistani policy at a time when the US approach to Pakistan is entering more conflictual territory.
China’s hesitancy in the face of Islamabad’s importuning also reflects genuine concerns over the broader deterioration of the security situation in Pakistan. While Beijing has never tended to view this through the lens of a “crisis”, it sees a range of trends that it fears will have a pernicious impact on China’s interests there over time, whether the Islamicisation of society and military, the weakening of state capacity or simply the worsening circumstances for Chinese companies. Chinese workers in Pakistan already operate under highly straitened conditions, and security risks were cited as the main problem by China Kingho Group when they announced that they were pulling out of what would have been Pakistan’s largest investment deal. The Pakistani military has made substantial efforts to protect Chinese citizens since the spate of attacks that followed the Lal Masjid siege, but there have still been more incidents involving Chinese persons in Pakistan over the last decade than in any other country. While Chinese companies have ultimately pressed ahead with many signature projects, such as the hydroelectric dam investments and the Karakoram highway expansion, fewer and fewer of these investments are seen to have real economic utility, and their progress is at times glacial. Beijing may be willing to persist with them, partly as a form of assistance to Pakistan, but doubts are mounting about more ambitious plans with little economic logic, such as those for a transport and energy corridor or a China-Pakistan rail link.
This does not completely obviate Pakistan’s strategic value to China. Even a project that is disappointing on the trade front such as Gwadar is still seen to have potential use as a naval facility, if not as a working port. Military cooperation continues apace. Pakistan’s channels to extremist groups may become even more useful to protecting China’s interests in Afghanistan in the coming years. And Islamabad has been highly attentive to Chinese counter-terrorism concerns: the Xinjiang government’s implicit criticism of Pakistan over the July attacks likely reflected an attempt to deflect blame from its own failings rather than any legitimate frustrations with Pakistan’s efforts.
It is not really Islamabad’s willingness to cooperate that is a concern to China though — it is its capacity. Whether through its security problems, economic fragility or deteriorating relationship with the US, China sees Pakistan’s ability to determine its strategic and economic fate in the coming years as being in fundamental doubt. With that, so is its ability to play the role that China would like it to: a genuinely effective counterweight to India and a fully capable collaborator on regional economic and security matters. There are some preliminary debates over whether China itself can encourage the changes in Pakistan that might help to bring this about. Chinese analysts speculate on whether China should start using its economic leverage more actively. But for now, that is still a step too far for Beijing. The result is a situation where, barring significant developments in Pakistan, the China-Pakistan relationship cannot realistically aspire much further beyond its current parameters. Beijing already gets most of what it wants out of Pakistan in the circumstances — it is the circumstances that worry it. And Pakistan cannot reasonably expect much more from China until those circumstances change.