05/23/2011 12:57 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2011

With Friends Like These...

As US lawmakers continue to debate whether to continue to fund Pakistan to the tune of $3 billion a year, many Americans are seriously reevaluating whether Pakistan is indeed a trustworthy partner. CIA Director Leon Panetta recently told US lawmakers Pakistani authorities are either "involved or incompetent" suggesting the country's ability to maintain a coherent national security strategy that benefits American interests is questionable at best. Still, cutting the country off ultimately will have worse outcomes for the US since suspending aid will force Islamabad to rely even more on militant proxies and China to serve its baseline security requirements.

Why would Pakistan's leaders pursue such a risky strategy? Simple: Pakistan cannot compete militarily with its greatest adversary, India, and thus requires unconventional abilities -- nuclear weapons and non-state actors -- to keep its rival off-balance. After all, Pakistan's military is half the size of India's, and core population centers and critical highways are within striking distance of Indian ground forces. By most projections, Pakistan would not survive a conventional war with its neighbor for more than a few weeks without international intervention.

Still, Americans are often surprised when they discover Pakistan maintains relationships with militant groups. Since Pakistan's founding, however, its leaders have consistently supported violent non-state actors to meeting the country's security needs. As early as 1947, Pakistan's first Prime Minister covertly authorized irregular forces called lashkars to invade the disputed Kashmir region. Pakistan again exploited irregular forces in its 1965 war, inserting them into Kashmir under an ill-fated plan called Operation Gibraltar. More recently, Pakistani intelligence services also provided long-term support for various Kashmir-focused militant groups -- including many on the US State Department's Foreign Terrorist Organization list -- as well as nurtured the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, Pakistan has few consistently reliable diplomatic relationships to achieve its national security goals. The most telling example is Pakistan's relationship with the US. As any cursory glance at a history book would indicate, Washington's friendship with Islamabad ebbs and flows, depending on the crisis of the month. The US used Pakistan to fight proxy wars against the Soviets, but also imposed punishing military sanctions via the Pressler Amendment on the country due to the "discovery" of the widely-documented-but-officially-clandestine nuclear weapons program. After the 1997 nuclear tests, the US imposed further sanctions on Pakistan. These sanctions were of course lifted after the 9/11 attacks because the US again required Pakistani support in the conflict against al Qaeda.

Where, then, would Pakistan turn for international support if America indeed withdraws its helping hand? The answer is likely Pakistan's "all weather friend," the People's Republic of China. Since Pakistan was the first non-Communist country to recognize Mao's government in Beijing, China has maintained close diplomatic relations and has repaid this early debt many times over by assisting Pakistan develop economically and militarily. For instance, China helped construct the Pakistani Army's engineering complex at Taxila; develop military shipyards in Karachi; and recently greenlighted the purchase of advanced fighter aircraft.

China also assisted Pakistan in their greatest challenge -- the quest to build nuclear weapons. As early as the mid-1970s, China provided Pakistan with critical nuclear precursors, triggering mechanisms, and training which the Pakistanis used to develop nuclear weapons. The US knew this: a declassified 1983 State Department cable concluded that China helped "develop [Pakistan's] nuclear weapons capability...[for] fissile material production and possibly also [a] nuclear device design." The Washington Post also reported that US intelligence officials even broke into Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan's luggage in the early 1980's, discovering blueprints for a China-designed nuclear weapon.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, China leaves Pakistan to its own devices. Unlike Washington, Beijing does not press Islamabad on any major political issue, whether it is internal reform, human rights, or support for Kashmiri groups. China provides Pakistan friendship with few strings attached.

In turn, China would enjoy a warmer Pakistani embrace because Beijing views Pakistan as a valuable hedge against India. As China continues to flex its military and economic muscles across the southern rim of Asia and engages in the global competition for raw materials, Beijing sees its strong alliance with Islamabad as advantageous. In any case, China was the only country to give India a military thrashing -- decisively defeating the Indians in 1962 -- providing a future template in the event a regional power struggle between the two nations again turned hot.

Hence, it is not in America's interests to drive Pakistan further into a corner. As Steven Coll wryly noted, Pakistan may be the too-big-to-fail "A.I.G. of nation-states" -- and to degrade Pakistan would be counterproductive to America's needs in fighting terrorism and maintaining a strong position in South Asia. By reducing or eliminating financial and military assistance, the US will diminish whatever precarious, brittle leverage it has inside the extremely volatile but critical nation. Therefore, America should keep its friends close, but keep its frenemies closer -- and financially bound.