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US-Pakistan Relations and the China Factor

The reaction of US policymakers to the killing of Osama bin Laden in a compound not too far from the Pakistani capital and within a stone throw from Pakistan’s military academy has pushed US-Pakistani relations to their lowest point in years. Over the last few weeks policymakers in Washington have sought to out-do one another in their demand for blood over what they see the Pakistani military as being inept or complicity in bin Laden’s ability to hide in Abbottabad. With the dust settling, US defense officials (Secretary Gates and Chairman Mullen being prime examples) have moved away from criticizing Pakistan to emphasizing its strategic importance for the United States, as they realize the harm being done to US interests in the region. These defense department officials know that without Pakistan the US would be in deep trouble in South Asia: 40% of US supplies to its forces in Afghanistan come through Pakistan. The question that is increasingly emerging is would Pakistanis forgive some of the outlandish and derogatory comments made against them by their American counter parts, which were led by CIA Director and potential new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who accused Pakistan of being either an accomplice or incompetent.

US anger towards Pakistan comes from the fact that despite the US providing aid to the tune of $2.2 billion annually to Pakistan, insecurity in Afghanistan (which lies at the epicenter of US foreign policy thinking in respect to South Asia) or Islamic terrorism have not ended, or even abated. In addition, American policymakers are further infuriated by Pakistan’s continuous slide towards state failure, as it becomes increasingly ungovernable and hostile towards the United States (according to the Pew Report – before the bin Laden operation – positive views towards the US and President Obama have declined from 16% in 2009 to 11% in 2011). Washington in other words, wants to see value for money, which is why much of the rhetoric following Operation Geronimo was about cutting US aid to Pakistan (US policymakers claimed that Pakistanis were abusing US generosity). The flaw with this approach is that it has alienated and angered ordinary Pakistanis who feel that the United States does not appreciate their sacrifices in fighting Islamic militancy over the last decade. The appearance in 2007, of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban umbrella movement was arguably a direct consequence of the American presence in Afghanistan. The TTP claims to promote and protect Islamic Pashtun Pakistani values. It strives to appear as a resistance movement to the hated pro-American Pakistani military that over the last few years – arguably in a desire to appease Washington – has launched military campaigns that have wreaked havoc on those living in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (previously known as North-West Frontier Province). The campaigns have created humanitarian catastrophes that left over 3 million Pakistanis internally displaced. Pakistanis note that the region as a result has descended into a state of regular bombings (US drones routinely attack targets in Pakistan – according to the New America Foundation there were 118 drone attacks in 2010) and acts of terrorism reign supreme (the South Asia Terrorism Portal noted that in 2010, over 5,000 people including militants, civilians and security personnel have died in FATA due to terrorist activity).

As Pakistanis recover from their shock – the killing of Osama bin Laden and the violation of their sovereignty – they will increasingly question their relationship with the United States, which explains why Prime Minister Gilani is emphasizing Pakistan’s relationship with China and China’s importance to Pakistan. The day after the bin Laden operation, Beijing issued a statement praising Islamabad for providing the information that enabled the CIA to organize the Delta 6 operation. On May 4, Ms. Li Hongmei, an editor and columnist with the online version of the Peoples’ Daily criticized the Obama administration for not only failing to thank the Pakistanis for their broad intelligence cooperation but for castigating the Pakistanis as either incompetent or complicit. Two weeks after the operation Prime Minister Gilani traveled to Beijing to celebrate the 60 years anniversary of Pakistani-Chinese diplomatic ties. Gilani was able to partake in the inauguration of the China-Pakistan Entrepreneurs Forum, which follows such agreements as the Pakistan-China Transborder Economic Zone and the Pakistan-China Investment Company. There have also been discussions between the Central Banks of Pakistan and China on currency swap arrangements. These initiative have helped expand economic relations between the two countries (in 2010 Pakistani-Chinese trade was worth about $9 billion, which Gilani and Premier Wen Jiabao wants to increase to $15 billion in the next few years) as Pakistan strives to emulate the Chinese economic miracle.

American policymakers must realize that Pakistan sees China as a more valuable friend than the United States. This is because since the 1960s Beijing has shown that it would stand by Pakistan in its time of trouble, relations between the two are conducted in privacy and Chinese officials never openly castigate or criticize Pakistan, opting to go out of their way to praise Pakistan for its commitment to fighting Islamic terrorism. When Beijing wants something done, it requests it in privacy – a good example was the Red Mosque incident in 2007, which began when Islamic radicals kidnapped a number of Chinese women working in a Chinese-run health center (a sex parlor). US policymakers must take a leaf out of the Chinese way of conducting foreign policy and realize that when dealing with fragile states, such as Pakistan, with a highly emotional populace, it is sometimes better to say nothing in public and a lot more in private. US policymakers are good at rhetoric and sound bites, but what they often forget is that sometimes words spoken to score political points are remembered. Washington must realize that Pakistanis know that the reason the US provides their country with aid is because they are needed for US national interest, not because the United States has a deep commitment to Pakistan. When US policymakers seek to claim the high moral ground, Pakistanis note US intelligence failure (9/11), Guantanamo Bay and the US’s role in the Afghan Jihad during which Charlie Wilson and others supported Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other famed Islamists. Thus, the more the US preaches and threatens, the more Pakistan turns away from it, as what Pakistan wants are friends and not masters.