04/04/2012 09:41 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2012

Subduing Pakistan: China's Chance for Leadership

As relations with the United States continue to thaw for Pakistan -- a situation that has changed little since NATO strikes inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers back in November -- Islamabad has sought refuge from its old friends in Beijing. After meeting at the Boao Conference this past weekend, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang reaffirmed the strength of the alliance between the countries. Using unusually strong verbiage, Gilani stated that, "China's friend is our friend, and China's enemy is our enemy," to which Li responded, "No matter what changes take place at the international level, we will uphold Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity." In the current climate, such words from Chinese leadership resonate sharply, as Pakistan's brass has been acutely sensitive to attacks on the country's sovereignty, especially since the unannounced raid by U.S. forces in Abbottabad to capture Osama bin Laden in May, and compounded by U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher calls for the independence of the province of Balochistan in recent months.

Wide popular discontentment of the U.S. and an ongoing, extended review of U.S.-Pakistani relations by the country's National Assembly has seen Islamabad re-establish and strengthen ties with nations that are at polar ends of U.S. strategic interests. Pakistan has decided, much to the chagrin of the U.S., to continue its agreement to build an oil and gas pipeline with Iran, and the statement of solidarity with the Chinese over this weekend further establishes Islamabad's belief that it does not require steadfast support from the U.S., is able to move away from its haphazard alliance, and that any future relationship with Washington will have significantly evolved terms.

For their part, the Chinese, too, have serious reasons to make this relationship work. After numerous border skirmishes with India, China is able to leverage Pakistan and its neurotic paranoia of the Indians to establish an ally in South Asia, should those border skirmishes ever escalate again. The relationship is then symbiotic for both parties. But while such a relationship between nuclear and seemingly unstable Pakistan and a rising and ambitious China may seem troublesome for the U.S., India and the majority of the world, the Chinese have the ability to keep Pakistan's military ambitions in check, and encourage overall stability in the region.

Despite China's strategic value of the relationship, Beijing has been critical of Pakistan in the past. Last year, the Chinese government rejected requests from Islamabad to assist in the financing of a naval base in the city of Gwadar, and the link between violence induced by Islamic separatist in the Xinjiang province and Pakistani militants placed strain on the relationship as well. More recently, the state-backed Industrial and Commercial Bank of China pulled out of its agreement to finance the $3 billion gas pipeline with Iran, perhaps succumbing to western condemnation of Pakistan's decision to move forward with the deal.

Unlike Americans, the Chinese are largely popular with Pakistani citizens, despite isolated incidents of disagreements. Beijing has funded several development projects in the country, and it does not hurt that both nations have a common historical adversary in India. Pakistan therefore values its relationship with the Chinese, and would be loath to ever put it in any serious harm. After China, there are not many staunch supporters of the Islamic republic, and Islamabad has to be wary of this.

The international community has been disappointed by China before, with the most recent example being its veto on providing U.N. assistance to Syria earlier this year, so proper handling of its relationship with Pakistan is not a foregone conclusion by any means. But the Chinese, much like the rest of the world, need a stable, internationally cooperative Pakistan. Its unique relationship with the country provides it the ability to shape and influence the alliance so that Islamabad does not become an international pariah -- a notion that, because of Pakistan's antipathy toward the U.S. and NATO, is perilously close.

China has been demanding of its recognition as a true world power, and in many ways, that recognition is due. But world powers in the 21st century have responsibilities to the international community as well, which include concerted efforts towards international peace and stability. If China is ready to be considered a true superpower, as it claims to be, it needs to use relations with Pakistan wisely. Behavior such as the outing of intelligence officials, asymmetric loyalties of military and intelligence officials, and a reluctance to cooperate in the Mumbai terrorist attack investigations should be strongly condemned by Beijing. Such criticisms would require changes in the way the Chinese Politburo approaches international relations, but that is what real leadership will require. Whether that change occurs remains to be seen, but it would undeniably resonate with Pakistan.