Originally Published 2011-05-25 00:00:00 Published on May 25, 2011
Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani visited China on May 17, barely two weeks after the killing of Osama bin Laden. The original purpose of the third Prime Ministerial meeting in 17 months - celebration of 60 years of Sino-Pakistan relations - was overshadowed by the Abbottabad raid,
What does Gilani's China visit signal to the US?
Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani visited China on May 17, barely two weeks after the killing of Osama bin Laden. The original purpose of the third Prime Ministerial meeting in 17 months - celebration of 60 years of Sino-Pakistan relations - was overshadowed by the Abbottabad raid, which has generated renewed scrutiny of Pakistan's sincerity in battling militancy. Recently, influential US legislators have even suggested substituting aid with coercive diplomacy to force Pakistan to comply with its counter-terrorism commitments.

During the visit, Gilani heaped praise on the Chinese leadership, saying, 'in these turbulent times, the only voice of reason in the international system is that of China', an obvious condemnation of United States' foreign policy. Pledging eternal friendship and brotherhood, he termed their relations 'indispensable...in ensuring regional and global peace.' Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, on the other hand, apprised Gilani of his message to the US to respect Pakistan's sovereignty and realise its contributions, and sacrifices, in the war on terror.

Besides the routine demonstration of mutual admiration and support, the two countries also signed three agreements related to a) the State Bank of Pakistan and China's Banking Regulatory Authority, b) extension of Saindak Gold and Copper Mining for another five years and c) greater economic and technical cooperation. Furthermore, the China Huadian Corporation and the China Tebian Electric Apparatus Stock (TBEA) also signed agreements with Pakistan's Ruba Group.  The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and the National Bank of Pakistan also agreed to open branches in the respective countries. In addition, Defence Minister Ahmad Mukhtar revealed that Pakistan may acquire 50 JF- 17 Thunder jets, a single engine multirole fighter aircraft co-developed by the two allies, in the next six months.

What is the significance of the visit? In other words, does the substance of Gilani's extraordinary statements compare with the eloquent grandstanding that has become customary to Sino-Pakistan ties? The answer is no.

For Islamabad, the visit bolstered the standing of the incumbent government in the face of severe criticism that followed the bin Laden raid. Besides admonishment from the west, domestically too, political opposition and elite opinion makers have condemned the government for allying with an unreliable partner, and 'paying the price', as became so graphically evident in Taliban's brazen attack on PNS Mehran in Karachi a few days ago.

In this backdrop, Gilani's visit was designed to serve two purposes. First, it reassured a jittery Islamabad, and Rawalpindi, that the country's foreign policy is in good health, and thus, reduced domestic censure. Internationally, by reconfirming the status of China as its 'best friend', Pakistan signalled to the US that it does not lack options, and if push comes to shove, it would gladly assist China in its looming competition with the US.

After all, Sino-Pakistan relations are grounded in an exceptionally strong and enduring logic of mutual incentives. Both share a common animosity towards India, with whom they have fought wars in the past. Flowing from this reasoning, China has helped Pakistan attain parity with India in nuclear weapons capability, and also buttressed its conventional arsenal, the latest being the al-Khalid Main Battle Tank and the JF-17 aircraft. Besides, it lends diplomatic support to Pakistan and has also given it substantial financial assistance. For its part, Pakistan, it is widely believed, helps China 'encircle' India within the chaotic confines of South Asia. Pakistan has also served as China's 'point-man' in the Muslim world and helped it mitigate the backlash arising from its harsh repression of the irredentist Uyghur community in the Xinjiang province. More importantly, Pakistan's geostrategic importance in context of access to Central Asian energy resources and proximity to the Persian Gulf is a crucial element of China's energy calculus.

With such strategic congruence, Pakistan's alignment with the China may appear inevitable. In this context, do Gilani's most recent signals to the US carry genuine intent, or are they merely rhetorical? The answer here too is negative.

Pakistan requires four major benefits from its primary patron - diplomatic support in the international system, overt military assistance (tanks, aircraft etc), covert military support (missile and nuclear weapons support), and sustained economic assistance for the foreseeable future. It is precisely the last requirement that exposes the limitations of China's utility to Pakistan.

Since Den Xiaoping's era, China's foreign policy is driven by economic imperatives, rather than by ideology. Since the level of its investments is driven almost entirely by market forces, Pakistan's precarious security condition has prevented Chinese companies from investing generously in the conflict-riddled country. It is not surprising that Pakistan does not feature in China's top trading destinations. While quantum of trade has risen in the past decade, the skewed balance of trade has actually hurt Pakistan's domestic industry, a fact admitted by its Economic Survey literature. Lastly, China, itself struggling to move from a developing to a developed economy, does not have the wherewithal to support a Kerry-Lugar-like aid program.

China, Pakistan and the US recognise the limitations of their leverages on each other, and also identify their mutual dependencies (for the US, Pakistan's assistance in 'solving' Afghanistan). Therefore, in the final analysis, Prime Minister Gilani's recent visit does not represent any major change in Pakistan's foreign policy, least of all, the much-speculated strategic alignment with China. It does, however, succeed in restoring the fragile equilibrium of Pakistan's relationship with the US. 

Sriparna Pathak and Kaustav Dhar Chakrabarti are Junior Fellows at Observer Research Foundation
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