December 19, 2011

Pakistan's Patrons

By Michael Krepon

India remains thoroughly non-aligned, even after its civil nuclear deal with Washington. Pakistan, in contrast, needs patrons, and has succeeded in having two powerful ones -- Washington and Beijing – to counterbalance India, a significant diplomatic accomplishment. No other country has managed to draw significant, concurrent support from Washington and Beijing, both before and after these powerhouses started speaking to each other.

In geopolitical terms, Afghanistan matters most as a place where outsiders have pursued follies and expended fortunes. History loves to repeat itself in Afghanistan, where the silk route turns to quicksand for major powers. Since the Soviet Union’s departure, the two countries that have erred most grievously in Afghanistan are the United States and Pakistan. Both are now at loggerheads over a political settlement there that neither can control. This is more than mildly ironic, since Afghanistan matters far less geopolitically than the demise of the US-Pakistan partnership. A complete split in US-Pakistan ties would constitute a loss for both parties, but Pakistan will suffer far more from having lost a patron.

The United States and Pakistan have been partners since the 1950s. Pakistan’s perceived utility to the United States extended long after John Foster Dulles’ regional alliances to contain the Soviet Union -- CENTO and SEATO -- dissolved. Paradoxically, the rise and revitalization of the Taliban, with Rawalpindi’s support, created conditions whereby Pakistan could initially renew and then jeopardize its partnership with the United States.

In June 2004, Washington declared Pakistan to be a major non-NATO ally. It’s been a downhill ride ever since. Reversing this slide will take a good long while, especially if the Taliban re-take Kabul with Rawalpindi’s help. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s national security establishment is backing the Taliban as if the country’s future depended on it. Over time, Washington will likely prioritize its Afghan concerns and outlays to disrupting those who seek to engage in long-distance, mass casualty terrorism. By which time Pakistanis will recall how unreliable a partner the Taliban are.

China, Pakistan’s other powerful patron, is an “all weather” friend, providing significant support for Pakistan’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapon programs in the past. After the Bush administration gifted New Delhi with a qualified exemption to the rules of nuclear commerce, Beijing consented to repeated Pakistani requests for nuclear power plants at concessionary rates – reactors that may no longer be built on Chinese soil.

Islamabad is increasingly looking to Beijing for investment and infrastructure development, but big steps forward are hindered by Pakistan’s internal security problems. In a stunning blow to Pakistani economic development plans, the China Kingho Group pulled out of a $19 billion deal to build coal mines, power and chemical plants in Sindh because Beijing feels that Karachi is not safe to invest or reside in. Beijing has also called out Pakistan -- a very unusual move -- because of unrest in China’s western border areas stoked by militants trained in Pakistan. Islamabad has pledged to deal with the issues causing Chinese discontent, and seeks to get investment back on track.

During crises with India in 1990, 1999 and 2001-2, Pakistani civilian and military leaders made beelines to Beijing seeking backup. They received polite but unmistakable advice to resolve their difficulties with New Delhi without major new weapon shipments or shrill public warnings against Indian military adventurism. Beijing helped the United States, South Asia’s essential crisis manager, more than it helped Pakistan during these three crises.

During the millennial flood of 2010, the United States provided $550 million to help Pakistanis in great distress, including $62 million is seeds and agricultural implements so that farmers could produce a bumper wheat crop after the waters receded. After prodding by U.S. officials, China reportedly added $200 million in flood-related assistance to its initial offering of $47 million.

Pakistani government leaders have tried to strengthen their partnership with China in tangible ways as ties with the United States fray. One method of dealing with Washington’s growing disaffection is by characterizing security assurances purportedly made in private by Chinese officials in ways that Beijing has notably refrained from reaffirming.

For example, during Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar’s May 2011 trip to China, he spoke appreciatively of Chinese construction of the Gwadar port, while expressing an interest in Chinese construction of “a naval base” there. When asked about this request, a senior Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson replied, “I have not heard about it.”

This odd exchange was preceded by a meeting in Beijing between Prime Minister Yusuf Reza Gilani and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in May, 2011. Pakistani media outlets dutifully reported a Pakistani Foreign Ministry press release that, “China has warned in unequivocal terms that any attack on Pakistan would be construed as an attack on China. Beijing has advised Washington to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty and solidarity… The Chinese leadership was extremely forthcoming in assuring unprecedented support to Pakistan for its national cause and security.” Chinese media outlets did not report this assurance.

Similarly, after Admiral Mike Mullen vocalized his assessment about Rawalpindi’s ties with the Haqqani network before leaving his post as Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Prime Minister Gilani asserted the following week, during a visit by Vice Premier Meng Jianzhu, China’s minister of public safety,that China “categorically supports Pakistan’s efforts to uphold its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.” Again, Chinese media reports did not use this formulation.

Pakistan’s military will increasingly rely on Chinese equipment. But the track record of China-Pakistan relations -- especially during natural disasters and crises with India -- suggests a relationship in which Pakistan asks for much and Beijing is circumspect about giving.
Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center. A shorter version of this essay appeared in the December 18th issue of Dawn.

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