The Times of India reported this week that Pakistan and China are strengthening military ties. The two countries have announced a “packed military exchanges’ schedule in 2011,” which includes two joint military exercises, and military representatives from both sides spoke of closer security cooperation going forward. Kind words between these two isn’t anything new, but developments in South Asia and elsewhere on the continent could give new relevance to the relationship and catch them in a bothersome foursome.
As we have noted before, China is pushing into Central Asia while also stirring up an arms race in the Pacific. Pakistan is a natural ally in this context, considering that one of China’s potential rivals in Asia is India. As the old saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Supporting Pakistan helps China maintain pressure on India’s western front and distract from the coming rivalry in the Pacific. In addition to the security cooperation, China is making massive investments in Pakistan – the most recent examples being the signing of deals worth $15 billion in December 2010. But as C. Christine Fair notes, investments in Pakistan are not exactly charity:
The roads and ports and other infrastructure that the Chinese are building in Pakistan principally benefit China. Pakistanis are an afterthought. The Chinese obtain contracts on favourable and profitable investment terms, use their own employees, and contribute little to the local economy ultimately to build projects that facilitate the movement and sales of cheap (but also dangerous and poorly crafted) Chinese goods and products into and through Pakistan.
The recent agreements between Pakistan and China did not come out of thin air. In some ways, Beijing is trying to placate Islamabad after courting New Delhi. As Hussain H. Zaidi noted a few weeks ago, China’s South Asia policy is changing. Despite numerous differences on nuclear technology, security, and trade, the two countries “deem economic cooperation to their mutual advantage. China and India being the world’s two largest markets, no business which sees for itself an international scope can afford to disregard the immense advantages that either market offers.” The consequence of this, Zaidi warns, is that China might choose India of Pakistan – if the economic factors are big enough. Now, that is a big ‘if,’ but the changes taking place in the region are too great to assume China will remain a constant.
South Asian politics are made all the more complicated with ties between Pakistan and the United States. The relationship between the two countries has always been an uneasy alliance, with mutual distrust and conflicting interests preventing stable, long-term relations. As Stephen Philip Cohen has written (page 302), historically “America’s relation with Pakistan has been one of engagement and withdrawal.” This became particularly evident after the last period of significant cooperation – namely during the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Without recounting a decades worth of diplomatic history, Pakistan almost over night became a key strategic partner of the United States. It received lavish military and civilian aid for helping the mujahideen operations in Afghanistan, but as Dennis Kux has noted, this was a marriage of convenience (page 266). Once the Soviet Union withdrew and Pakistan’s nuclear program became undeniable, the United States filed for divorce.
The current relationship between the United States and Pakistan came into being shortly after 9/11, as the United States once again needed help in Afghanistan. With tensions rising over drone strikes and Afghanistan the past few years, many have wondered whether this new strategic partnership would come to an end too. The arrest of CIA employee Raymond Davis in January this year has done little to allay these fears. While the outcome of this diplomatic crisis remains uncertain, there are worrying signs for future U.S.-Pakistan relations. Pakistan’s military intelligence service ISI is reportedly ready to sever ties with CIA, and earlier this week top U.S. military officials had secret talks with their Pakistani counterparts with the ongoing diplomatic crisis at the top of the agenda.
The current cooperation regime might prevail, with enough effort, but all the diplomatic maneuvering in the world cannot change the fundamental fact that the Pakistani population is tired of what it perceives as undue U.S. influence in Pakistan. As C. Christine Fair noted this week, commenting on the Raymond Davis story: “The bottom line is that the Pakistanis do not want a strategic relationship with the US. Washington needs to get over the idea that throwing more money at Pakistan will make it see its own interests differently.”
For now, the United States is woefully dependent on Pakistan’s support in battling the Taliban, and the Pakistani military is growing increasingly aware that it has a mutual interest in combating militant groups. But differences between the two countries perception of interests persist and are unlikely to fade away anytime soon. The Pakistani military and intelligence remain supportive of, or at least ambivalent towards, the Haqqani Network — arguably the United States’ biggest headache in Afghanistan. Support for or tacit approval of the group Lashkar-e-Taiba is perhaps even more troubling to the United States as it threatens India, and thus regional stability.
The question is if China is trying to drive a wedge into these cracks. Put differently, is China’s strengthening of ties as much a move against the United States as it is bolstering a rival of India? I am inclined to say ‘no’. Directly challenging the United States seems too direct a move for Beijing, and there is no evidence to reach such a conclusion. Obviously, lessening U.S. influence in Pakistan could be a welcome side effect, but keeping the fire warm west of India looks like the main motive. To put it simply, Pakistan serves two purposes that are not necessarily mutually exclusive: on one side the country serves as an important U.S. partner towards Afghanistan, while on the other side Pakistan helps put pressure on India.
These two functions are only separate as long as the United States does not see a conflict. If Pakistan starts acting belligerent towards India, the equation changes. The United States is, after all, attempting the near-impossible of maintaining good relations with Pakistan while strengthening ties with India and keeping China in check. The fact that Pakistan has not picked a side makes South Asia an entangling mess of alliances and partnerships.