At Odds with U.S., Pakistan Deepens Ties with China

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Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attend the U.S.-Pakistan Dialogue Plenary Session at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 22, 2010

Declarations of solidarity and the $2 billion in promised military aid received by a high-level Pakistani delegation in Washington last week belie the hardening of U.S. attitudes toward Islamabad. A White House report to Congress in early October accused the Pakistani army of avoiding "military engagements that would put it in direct conflict with Afghan Taliban or al-Qaeda's forces," suggesting this inaction was a "political choice." Mounting exasperation within the Administration at the failure of Pakistan to do its designated part in the U.S. war in Afghanistan is prompting calls in Washington to take a much tougher line with Islamabad. But rather than produce a more pliant Pakistan, an escalation of U.S. pressure could prompt Islamabad to strengthen its ties with a more forgiving ally, China.

Despite the Pakistani military's long-term reliance on U.S. support, anti-American sentiment in the country is dangerously high, stoked in part by growing anger over civilian casualties from U.S. drone attacks as well as disquiet with Washington's warming ties with Pakistan's archrival, India. President Obama is due to travel to India this week in a high-profile state visit.

In an exclusive interview with TIME conducted in late September, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi complained about the controversial civil-nuclear-energy deal the Bush Administration negotiated with India. No similar deal is on the cards for the Pakistanis, with Washington skittish about the security of Islamabad's nuclear program and about the continued links between members of its military intelligence agency, the ISI, and various jihadists. "We were the traditional allies — the Indians remained in the Soviet camp," says Qureshi. "Ever since that changed, the American approach has changed. Today, America values India a lot."

Washington's perceived shift toward India has led some among Pakistan's elites, particularly within its powerful security establishment, to place more emphasis on Islamabad's relations with Beijing. Pakistan and China share what is often dubbed an "all-weather" friendship: a Cold War–vintage alliance born out of geography and a mutual antipathy to India. In February, China agreed to build two nuclear reactors in Pakistan, a move that was seen as strategic tit-for-tat following the India-U.S. deal. And last month, leaked reports suggested that China National Nuclear Corporation was in advanced talks with Pakistani authorities to build a massive new one-gigawatt nuclear facility. Previous Chinese technological assistance is believed by some to have gone well beyond simple energy projects. "Without Chinese help," says Hassan Abbas, a professor of South Asian studies at Columbia University, "there would be no Pakistani nuclear bomb."

Abbas, a former Pakistan government adviser, says Beijing's interests in the region are now expanding at a rapid clip — "the Chinese ambassador in Islamabad is a very active person," he notes. China has enlisted Pakistani cooperation in quashing potential Muslim insurgencies in its far-western province of Xinjiang, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan. Apart from its nuclear-energy investments, China is also constructing dams, building infrastructure and exploring for precious metals. It has also developed the strategic deep-water port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea in Pakistani Baluchistan — although hopes to have that serve as a primary conduit to Central Asian trade have been clouded by the security situation, which has seen Gwadar possibly eclipsed in that role by an Indian-backed port in Iran. "China is a neighbor and a friend," Qureshi told TIME. "China has the technology today and China has the money to invest."

The Pakistanis don't seem to mind that many of these projects have been carried out with the use of Chinese labor and, in some cases, with little direct benefit to the local economy. Unlike the U.S., says Abbas, China is viewed positively by much of the Pakistani public, whose voluble media tends to blame the country's travails on American, Israeli or Indian meddling. While Pakistanis are often quick to side with the cause of Muslim separatists around the world — whether in nearby Kashmir or Chechnya or Palestine — little attention is paid to the plight of Muslim Uighurs in neighboring Xinjiang. "You will not find any discussion about this in the Pakistani discourse," says Abbas.

Yet, says C. Christine Fair, an expert on South Asian political and military affairs at Georgetown University, much of the apparent strength of Sino-Pakistani ties is illusory. "China does what is in its strategic interests and uses Pakistan no more and no less than [other big donors] Saudi Arabia and the U.S.," she says. There's little effort from Beijing to help boost Pakistan's flagging civilian government or stabilize the country's democracy. According to Fair, Beijing's support of Islamabad is meant, in part, to tie up China's longer-term regional rival, India. "What China really wants is to encourage security competition to basically counter India's rise," she says.

Pakistan is, nonetheless, a useful chess piece for China as it steadily makes inroads into South and Central Asia — from laying pipelines through a host of former Soviet republics to tapping Afghanistan's sprawling copper fields. Qureshi welcomes expanded Chinese engagement: "They have an interest in a stable and peaceful [region], and why not? We want them to play a role."

Strategists in the U.S. can only hope that China's growing involvement in Pakistan yields positive results. "The only way forward is for the U.S. to work more closely with China, especially in a region where there ought to be some commonality of interest," says Fair. But on the historic playing field of the old imperial Great Game, commonality of interest is hardly stable — particularly when it comes to an ascendant China and a beleaguered America, groping for a way out.