Pakistan has touted its alliance with “all-weather friend” Beijing in the wake of its recent falling out with Washington, a dispute that culminated in the suspension of military aid worth $800 million USD. However, Beijing does not appear interested in replacing the US as financier or guarantor of Pakistan’s security. In fact, the threat of Uighur terrorism has become a stumbling block in the partnership.
The bilateral relationship between Pakistan and the US, already tense for some time, reached a significant low point around the end of 2011. The raid on Osama bin Laden’s complex in Abbottabad, some 50km outside the capital, left Pakistan’s military establishment utterly humiliated. Relations suffered a further blow when a subsequent NATO airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, leading Islamabad to shut down NATO supply routes into Afghanistan for a period of 7 months.
Historically, Pakistan has propped up insurgent groups as a way to expand its regional influence, but this policy is becoming more untenable as time goes on. The Obama administration has become disillusioned with Islamabad’s failure to crack down on trans-border factions like the Haqqani network and other militant groups that are destabilizing Afghanistan. The Haqqani network is one of the leaders of the Afghan insurgency and has claimed several attacks on US troops, including an attack on the US Embassy in Kabul in 2011. Exasperated by Pakistan’s inaction, the US has increasingly relied on covert drone operations to target insurgents in remote areas of the country.
Although diplomatic relations between the US and Pakistan have always been rocky, Islamabad has remained one of the top five recipients of US economic and military assistance since 1948, with aid levels peaking at around $2.3 billion in 1962. The US has, nonetheless, suspended all assistance on two occasions - in the 1970s and the 1990s - due to Pakistan’s nuclear program. Yet Pakistan remained an important Cold War ally in the regional struggle against India and the Soviet Union, who had to fight an Afghan mujahedeen that had been trained by the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence. After 9/11, Washington once again turned to Pakistan making it a prominent part of its campaign against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
As the first Muslim nation to recognize the independence of the People’s Republic of China in 1950, Islamabad’s relations with Beijing are steeped in symbolic shows of support. The extent of economic cooperation between Pakistan and China is often exaggerated. Bilateral trade flows are worth a mere $9 billion annually, a figure that pales in comparison to the $74 billion of Sino-Indian trade recorded in 2011. Foreign direct investment (FDI) ventures have also been relatively flat. According to official Chinese sources, its FDI in Pakistan between 2005 and 2010 totaled $1.83 billion, the bulk of which went to telecommunication projects. This is an insignificant sum when compared to the $250 billion that Beijing has invested worldwide since 2005.
Compared to the mature, albeit flawed, defense cooperation with the United States, Sino-Pakistani military relations are still in the nascent stage. The first-ever China-Pakistan Defense talks were held in 2002 and the two countries held their first joint military exercise in November 2011. Beijing also reportedly sold 50 JF-17 fighter jets to Pakistan in May 2011.
This façade of solidarity and cooperation has shown its cracks before, most recently during celebrations over 60 years of Sino-Pakistani friendship. The story goes that Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the head of ISI, was on his way to Beijing when China first started broadcasting reports on the latest bout of unrest in Xinjiang. These reports claimed that recent attacks, including a truck high-jacking, police station raid, and a spate of knifings in Kashgar, were all the work of the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement, and that the perpetrators had received training in Pakistan.
Beijing, apprehensive of the threat posed by Uighur separatists, has been increasingly associating instability in western China with Pakistan’s covert support for certain insurgent fractions. Little information is available about the number of Uighurs affiliated with Al Qaeda, but reports have confirmed their presence in various militant training camps in Pakistan. China’s decision to openly critique Pakistan marks a significant departure from its usual official discourse. It also implies that Beijing, like Washington, has grown weary of Pakistan’s chronic internal instability. For both China and the US, although to different extents, Pakistan is becoming a big liability. If Pakistan fails to bring a sense of order and control to its tribal areas, it risks losing both the aid and stewardship of the US and China as well.
Despite Pakistan’s optimism, China is not going to prop up the regime if doing so comes at the cost of its own domestic stability in Xinjiang and beyond.
Elena Mizrokhi is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com