Osama bin Laden’s death has deepened tensions between Islamabad and Washington. Will Pakistan fall into China's arms?
Could China be the country that benefits most from Osama bin Laden's death in Pakistan? As tensions between Islamabad and Washington reach new heights over the killing of al Qaeda's former leader, Pakistan has discretely begun looking to China in its hope to minimize the impact of a potentially major crisis in relations with the US.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani addressed his Parliament on Monday on the bin Laden raid. His speech disclosed little new information, but underlined the diplomatic strategy that Islamabad intends to adopt in order to free itself from America's embrace. Mr Gilani bent over backwards in his attempt to praise China, describing it as "a source of inspiration for the Pakistani people".
Politicians and the public are showing increasing demand for a looser relationship between Islamabad and the US, whose attitude is considered ungrateful, given Pakistan's "sacrifices' for the fight against terrorism. Nawaz Sharif, leader of the opposition and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), has called for the government to reconsider its relations with Washington after its "violation of Pakistan's national sovereignty," as he described the American intervention in Abbottabad.
In Pakistan's press, calls are multiplying for the country to opt for the China alternative. In an article entitled "Time to distinguish between friends and foes', The Nation daily, which is close to the army, wrote on May 6: "It is about time that the government started distancing itself from the so-called friend, the US. It should get closer to time-tested China."
Analysts in Islamabad are convinced that bin Laden's death will mark a turning point in Pakistan's diplomacy. "It is highly probable that Pakistan will get closer to China and Russia too," says Imtiaz Gul, Director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. "Pakistanis are now asking themselves what the country has gained from our alliance with the United States. The result is a whole array of condemnations and a total lack of confidence."
Iftikhar Murshid, a former diplomat, now Editor-in-chief of the magazine Criterion Quarterly, puts the announced turnaround in perspective. "The relation between Pakistan and China is already incredibly profound," he says, noting that "it could, of course, become even more so. The perception of people here is that China is a reliable partner who has never let Pakistan down. But it goes without saying that we would never put all our eggs into the same basket."
It did not take long for China to understand the full benefits of the confidence crisis between Pakistan and the United States. While suddenly finding itself the object of general suspicion in most Western countries, Islamabad received kind words from Beijing. On May 6, China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman urged the international community to show "more comprehension and support" to Pakistan, also recalling that "national sovereignty should be respected", an implicit criticism of the American raid. The official Chinese press has done the same, qualifying any doubts on Pakistan's anti-terrorist commitment as "unjust".
Until now, Islamabad had managed to strike a balance between its partnership with the US and its long-lasting friendship with China. Relations with Washington have been strained at times, especially because of Pakistani nuclear ambitions. In the aftermath of 9/11, the "war on terror" brought the two countries together as never before. Pakistan has skillfully cashed in on its "borderline state" status (as during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan), benefiting, according to certain critics, from "strategic rent."
In the period from 2002 to 2011, the U.S. has spent nearly $20 billion on aid for Pakistan, three quarters of which was in the form of security costs. This help is now being questioned by some members of Congress who think that Washington has received very little in return.
China has considerably increased its presence in Pakistan over the last decade. It has built the Gwadar port in Baluchistan, for example, securing Chinese access to energy supplies via the Arabian Sea. It has also reinforced its civil nuclear cooperation with Pakistan to counterbalance closer relations between the Unites States and India. China's role in Pakistan looks set to grow, reshaping the geostrategic balance in Southern Asia.
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