Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pakistan: Pakistan Turns to China as U.S. Slams

Pakistan and Chinese leaders, Yousaf Raza Gilani and Hu Jintao | Credit: linkmuslims.com

By Shastri Ramachandran* Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) - The cards in diplomatic power play in South Asia are being reshuffled as China works on a new strategic partnership with Pakistan, Russia no longer looks at India's neighbour through the hyphenated prism of New Delhi, and who-knew-what about Bin Laden's hiding place continues to shadow Islamabad's relations with the United States.

A journalist visiting Pakistan cannot escape that impression. Of the four themes that figured through the programme, Pakistan's war against terrorism and India-Pakistan relations topped the agenda. But more off than on the record was Pakistan's troubled ties with the U.S., worsening by the day. On the margins, outside the frame of formal interaction, a topic of much interest was Sino-Pak relations.

In Lahore, the agreements signed during Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif's "successful" five-day visit to China from April 18 made headlines, but was routine nevertheless.

So, when Foreign Ministry officials and others spoke of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's four-day visit to China from May 17, no eyebrows went up. After all, it was part of the year-long celebration to mark the 60th anniversary of Sino-Pak ties.

Few expected that, within a matter of days China-Pakistan relations would evoke great interest and greater speculation worldwide. When the U.S. struck at Bin Laden, the world erupted in jubilant applause and Pakistan came under severe fire. Pakistan was pilloried as the fount of global terrorism.

China alone supported Pakistan and stood by it in the face of global opposition. China and Pakistan had completed a strategic dialogue on May 13 to deepen cooperation on counter-terrorism. True to its stance, in the aftermath of Bin Laden's killing, China reaffirmed its cooperation with Pakistan to combat terrorism.

China focused on stability in Pakistan, defended Pakistan's record of fighting terrorism and criticized the Obama administration for violating Pakistan's territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence.

China drew the world's attention to Pakistan's sacrifices and sufferings in combating terrorism. Pakistan could not ask for more at a time when it feels besieged, and relations with the U.S. have hit a new nadir.

"Pakistan is again in trouble, in a difficult situation. What it urgently requires is allies' support. And, among allies, Chinese support is critical to its lifeline," observed Amna Yusaf Khokhar, a research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies (ISS) in Islamabad.

"Instead of raising fingers at the time-tested friend's credibility, it showed support and, rather, criticized the Obama administration," she wrote in her role as editor of Asia Despatch.

More seasoned experts, too, adopted a similar stance to emphasize that China is much valued by Pakistan, and not only during a crisis.

Riaz Hussain Khokhar, former foreign secretary who has served as ambassador to China and High Commissioner to India, spoke strongly on these issues. "Pakistan and China never played games with each other. China does not really need Pakistan, but because of our sincerity, China has remained a strong friend," Khokhar told me.

Similar admiring views were expressed by others, including Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, director-general of ISS and a former ambassador toChina. Qazi, who served as Pakistan's High Commissioner to India, was also the UN Secretary-General's special envoy to Iraq and, later, Sudan.

What they don't say explicitly is more important: That Pakistan and China, even before Bin Laden's killing, but in preparation for the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, have been striving to strengthen strategic cooperation in the region.

An expert at the ISS, speaking anonymously, said that Pakistan and China are joining hands to shape the region's security with Afghanistan at its centre.

"The situation in Afghanistan calls for new alliances, new strategies." With U.S. forces pulling out and Pakistan crucial for stabilizing the situation, China might emerge in a potent, new role, speculated a foreign affairs commentator.

As Qazi said, in a different context, "Every country has leverage," and the U.S. should not take Pakistan for granted.

Gilani's four-day trip to China has assumed extraordinary significance amidst talk of a new strategic partnership with far-reaching implications, especially for the U.S. but also for India, South Asia and the West.

In the history of China-Pakistan relations, rarely has a Pakistani prime minister's visit to Beijing attracted so much attention. (IDN-InDepthNews/16.05.2011)

*The writer, who recently travelled to Pakistan at the invitation of the Government of Pakistan, is a former Editor of Sunday Mail and has worked with leading newspapers in India and abroad. He was Senior Editor and Writer with China Daily and Global Times in Beijing. For nearly 20 years before that he was a senior editor with The Times of India and The Tribune. Besides commentaries on foreign affairs and politics, he has written books, monographs, reports and papers. He is co-editor of the book State of Nepal.