Pakistan and China: Is the ‘All Weather Alliance’ Sustainable, or a Magic Carpet Mirage?

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Rodney W Jones


Pakistan has long been a beneficiary of straightforward Chinese security assistance, and Islamabad is accustomed to relying on China as an “all-weather ally” against military pressure from India. China has placed remarkably few political demands on Pakistan for its assistance and has not thus far visibly interfered in Pakistan’s domestic affairs. China’s rise as an emerging world power is naturally seen in Pakistan, therefore, as a uniquely congenial condition supporting Pakistan’s independence, economic outlook, and regional aspirations. Pakistan is conscious that its role as a large Muslim country and its own pivotal geography are strategically valuable to China both as an intermediary with the oil-producing countries of the Middle East and as an alternate, overland route for the transport of energy supplies and commerce with countries bordering the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf. From Pakistan’s standpoint, the mutual strategic benefits of this relationship suggest that it can be counted on to remain durable definitely. Only one other foreign relationship, that with Saudi Arabia, offers Pakistan a similar steadfastness, and Saudi assistance is not comparable with China’s in strategic security value and is somewhat more intrusive in internal affairs. China’s rise and the deepening of its relationship with Pakistan –emphasizing energy transport infrastructure – may offer further economic benefits but may also impose tradeoffs for Pakistan on its freedom of maneuver internationally and on its socio-political development that have not been foreseen or understood. What seems to be a straightforward relationship could become something of a straitjacket that constrains Pakistan’s ability to define its own future. China supplies Pakistan with military technology, may modestly enlarge Pakistan’s nuclear power program, and has invested in cellular communications. Noticeably missing in China’s approach to Pakistan thus far, however, are economic investments in Pakistani manufacturing and trading capabilities, or in the modernization of water management and agriculture, not to speak of modern education, social uplift or poverty reduction, or the rule of law – all critical areas for Pakistan’s future economic development and social capacity. This essay seeks to explore the potential benefits and also the tradeoffs and potential pitfalls for Pakistan in the ramping up of the broader Sino-Pakistani relationship. Its aim is to help clarify the ways Pakistan can attempt to manage this relationship for optimal results in national political and economic development, and modernization, as well as constructive Pakistani leadership in regional and international affairs. This essay further seeks to raise issues for discussion of how Pakistan can take charge more effectively of its destiny – utilizing the opportunities China may offer, but employing them to generate momentum for long-range solutions to national and social needs. These would certainly include a more harmonious integration of Pakistan’s social and cultural diversity, a progressive reinforcement of civil society and reduction of political and religious extremism, the nurturing of democratic political institutions and the rule of law, the promotion of equality and poverty reduction, a progressive tax system that puts a fair portion of the concentrations of landed wealth into public education and social development, and the strengthening of modern norms against gross corruption. Long-range solutions may also include a normalization of relations with India and opening of trade and investment across South Asia – including Afghanistan, prospectively reducing military confrontation and external security burdens, and permitting a more balanced allocation of national revenues and budgetary resources. This would put Pakistan in a more confident and sustainable position to finance development and investment from its own internal sources while reducing international indebtedness. Pakistan’s relationship with China, this essay suggests, will be no magic carpet that lifts Pakistan out of its chronic, roller-coaster problems. But if the benefits that relationship can provide are intelligently broadened and rationally employed, Pakistan surely will have a much better chance than without them to put its domestic house in order, improve its wider relations with neighbors, and move onto a track of economic growth that merges it with Asia’s growing prosperity. If Pakistan instead banks on China’s relationship and resources reflexively, taking them for granted as its main remedies for internal and external difficulties, it may well find they narrow Pakistan’s choices downstream.

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