The killing of 24 Pakistan troops by NATO forces is just the latest disastrous chapter in U.S.-Pakistan relations. As affairs go from bad to catastrophic, it's not just the Taliban who will benefit, but also China.
For several years now, the Pakistanis have found China a very willing and increasingly powerful counterweight to the Americans and their often strident -- you could call it arrogant -- political demands.
Toeing Washington's line, in other words, is no longer the only game in town. And the pragmatic Chinese, as always, seem willing to work with whomever holds power. Each crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations is an opportunity for the Chinese.
Take, for instance, the outrage in both the U.S. and Pakistan after American troops secretly entered Pakistan last May 2, to do away with Osama Bin Laden. The day after the killing, as Americans officials in Washington intimated that duplicitous Pakistani military officials had been harboring the Al Qaeda leader, and fulminating U.S. congressmen were demanding immediate cuts in aid, a foreign ministry spokesperson in Beijing leapt to Pakistan's defense. He declared that, "The Pakistani government is firm in resolve and strong in action when it comes to counterterrorism -- and has made important contributions to the international counterterrorism efforts." America should respect Pakistan's sovereignty, the Chinese said.
As U.S.-Pakistani relations continued to curdle, the Chinese and Pakistanis only tightened their embrace. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, on an official visit to China, told Chinese state radio, "We appreciate that in all difficult circumstances China stood with Pakistan -- therefore we call China a true friend and a time-tested and all-weather friend."
During that trip, China's Premier proved that friendship by announcing that China would supply Pakistan with 50 JF-17 fighter jets equipped with sophisticated avionics, the planes to be paid for by China.
Pakistan's nuclear program provoked a similar flurry. The U.S., very upset by Pakistan's clandestine development of nuclear weapons, had been looking at Pakistan's program with a baleful eye. Not the Chinese, who raised hackles in Washington when they sold the Pakistanis two new nuclear reactors, supposedly to be used only for civilian purposes. The deal, the Chinese insisted, was peaceful. [The Pakistanis are quick to point out that the U.S. has been much more willing to forgive India -- America's ally -- for also developing clandestine nukes.]
In fact, for years now, China has been the major supplier of military hardware to Pakistan. The two countries also have arms manufacturing co-production deals, and carry out joint military exercises.
But military links are just for starters. While the U.S. has spent billions on military bases in the Persian Gulf, the Chinese have been funding a sophisticated deepwater commercial port in Gwadar, Pakistan, near the Persian Gulf. Just as important, they're also rehabilitating a 1300-kilometer-long highway to connect Gwadar to China through Pakistan. You may never have heard of Gwadar, but you will in the future. "Come back in a decade and this place will look like Dubai," a developer recently said.
Trade between China and Pakistan has soared from $2 billion in 2002 to $7 billion in 2009. After a flurry of new agreements, they are hoping to hit $18 billion by 2015. Those agreements target everything from agriculture to heavy machinery, to space and upper atmosphere research, alternative energy projects, power plants, and urban security.
The Chinese are also aiming to increase investment in Pakistan from the present $2 billion a year, to more than $3 billion a year by 2012. That's double the annual $1.5 billion in economic assistance from the United States that supposedly has kept the Pakistani military in line all these years.
Indeed, since 9/11/2001, the United States has provided Pakistan with some $20 billion in aid, mostly military -- in effect pay-offs for Pakistan's cooperation in fighting terrorism. But that aid -- more like mercenary payments -- has done little to prevent the disastrous decline in relationship between the two countries.
The basic reason is simple: China and Pakistan have more interests in common than do America and Pakistan. Looking to the future, powerful elements in Pakistan's military have long viewed America's enemies in Afghanistan, the Taliban, as valuable allies against India when America inevitably pulls out of Afghanistan. China, like Pakistan, also regards India as a regional rival to be harassed and thwarted.
By working together China and Pakistan will be able to challenge not just India, but also the United States and with its claims to hegemony in the area -- particularly since President Obama's recent announcement that 2500 U.S. Marines would be stationed in Australia as part of America's determination to give more attention to the Pacific.
China's swollen coffers now also enable it to use foreign aid in the way that America did in Washington's plusher days. After the disastrous floods in Pakistan last summer, for instance, China announced its biggest-ever humanitarian aid program including $250 million in donations. It also included a $400 million loan to help Pakistan tackle the financial impact of the flooding, and a cash grant of $10m towards a fund to compensate people rendered homeless.
As part of this new "hearts-and-minds" policy, the Chinese offered 500 university scholarships over the next three years for Pakistani students, with programs focusing on technological areas of expertise not taught in Pakistan. The two countries will also exchange high-school students, young entrepreneurs, and voluntary social workers. Meanwhile, Chinese surgeons are being dispatched to Pakistan to perform cataract operations on 1,000 blind patients.
Such efforts are obviously paying off. It turns out the Pakistanis are now also proselytizing for the Chinese. According to the New York Times earlier this year:
At a key meeting on April 16 in the Afghan capital, Kabul, top Pakistani officials suggested to Afghan leaders that they, too, needed to look to China, a power on the rise, rather than tie themselves closely with the United States, according to Afghan officials.
"You couldn't tell exactly what they meant, whether China could possibly be an alternative to the United States, but they were saying it could help both countries," an Afghan official said afterward.
And all that was before this last catastrophic weekend.