Threatened by India, betrayed by America, Pakistan casts a lovelorn eye at China
VIEWED FROM ISLAMABAD, the history of relations between America and Pakistan has been a saga of serial American betrayals. In the 1950s the two countries were close friends. Yet when Pakistan went to war with India in 1965, America stayed neutral. Nor was Richard Nixon much help when East Pakistan seceded to become Bangladesh in 1971, despite Pakistan’s role in facilitating his opening to China. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, close co-operation in the 1980s over arming and training the mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan soon turned into sanctions against Pakistan’s nuclear programme.
In his memoirs, Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s then dictator, describes how he had to think long and hard in September 2001 before offering his country’s logistical support to America in the looming war in Afghanistan. From the outset Pakistan has felt under-rewarded. The settlement reached in Bonn in December 2001 that charted a course for Afghanistan’s political development already seemed to disregard Pakistan’s interests. The centralised state set up by Afghanistan’s new constitution was seen as marginalising the Pushtuns and hence both unworkable and inimical to Pakistan’s interests. President Karzai is a Pushtun, but his government is seen as dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks.
Too many strings
Even the offer of lavish American aid was somewhat counterproductive. The Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill signed by the president in October 2009 promised $7.5 billion in non-military aid over five years. But it requires the secretary of state to certify that Pakistan is co-operating in thwarting nuclear proliferation and terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and elsewhere (eg, India). The army fumed at the perceived incursion on Pakistan’s sovereignty. After the raid that killed bin Laden, Pakistan expelled some American military trainers, and $800m in military aid was suspended. A further $700m was withheld in December, linked to a demand that Pakistan do more to stem the inflow of improvised-bomb ingredients to Afghanistan.
The rest of the world fumes at the perceived complicity of parts of the Pakistani state in terrorist attacks, most dramatically the one in Mumbai in November 2008 that killed more than 170 people. That was planned in Pakistan and carried out by Pakistanis, and it is hard to believe there was no official connivance. The aim would have been to heighten tension with India, justifying the army’s concentration of its resources on the eastern frontier. Since both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers, that would make it a breathtakingly risky tactic. Yet Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent might have emboldened the alleged plotters. Indeed, Pakistan, watching India’s economy and defence budget grow, is believed to be expanding its nuclear arsenal as fast as it can. Unlike India, it has never promised to use its nuclear weapons only in retaliation. Many Pakistani strategists argue that the subcontinent is more stable with nuclear weapons than without, since they helped restrain India after an attack on its parliament in 2001, as well as after the Mumbai and other atrocities.
This remains a terrifying state of affairs, even if relations between Pakistan and India are recovering from the post-Mumbai slump. A “composite dialogue” between the two countries has resumed and limps on. And in November 2011 Pakistan at last agreed to reciprocate India’s decision in 1996 to grant its neighbour’s exports most-favoured-nation status. But none of the countries’ differences has been settled—even where, as with the armed stand-off over the Siachen glacier in the Himalayas, or the disagreement over the maritime boundary in the Sir Creek between Sindh and the Indian state of Gujarat, a solution seems within reach and is in both sides’ obvious interests.
Even on the biggest dispute, Kashmir, that has twice brought the two countries to full-scale war, a solution of sorts seems tantalisingly close. Before the Mumbai attacks, talks between Mr Musharraf and Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, along with back-room negotiations, had reached the outlines of a settlement: one that looks very like the status quo, which is almost the only conceivable outcome. India would retain control of the Kashmir Valley, and the less populated but bigger parts of Kashmir in Pakistan would remain with that country. But the borders would be softened, with travel and trade made easier, and some cross-border institutions would be set up.
There would be huge obstacles to this, notably trying to persuade Pakistanis and Kashmiris that this would not be a humiliating defeat. But at least in Pakistan the issue has dropped down the agenda. As fewer young Pakistanis train as fighters and sneak across the “line of control” to join the jihad in Kashmir, and as television propaganda about alleged Indian atrocities becomes rarer, the conflict there seems less immediate. In Pakistani conversations listing India’s crimes, it features mainly as the location of dams denying Pakistani farmers water.
So now might not be a bad time to make another push for a Kashmir settlement. But Pakistan’s government is too preoccupied with its internal troubles to try, even if the army, with its need for an “India threat” to justify its size and its budget, were to allow it to, or, just as unlikely, were India ready to offer some face-saving concessions.
River deep and mountain high
So for the foreseeable future Pakistan’s relations with both India and America will be stormy. There is, however, one all-weather friend: China. When the two countries’ leaders talk of this relationship, they sound more like lovestruck adolescents than statesmen. “Higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey,” was how Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, described their ties last year.
Zhou Rong, correspondent in Islamabad for Guangming, a Chinese daily, says the bilateral relationship, uniquely, refutes Palmerston’s adage about nations having no permanent friends, only permanent interests. China has dealt uncomplainingly with whatever ghastly regimes Pakistan’s elections and coups have thrown up. And it was grateful for Pakistan’s swift reaffirmation of friendship after the Beijing massacre in 1989.
All the same, it is a relationship based on mutual interests. Pakistan likes to feel it is not entirely beholden to America, and China’s backing of Pakistan is a way of hedging against the rise of India as a regional power. There is an economic interest too. China helped build the port at Gwadar and has been improving the roads on the border with its western region of Xinjiang. It is eyeing the mineral wealth in Pakistan itself, and a new route for energy and other imports. But it has little to show for all this.
In apparent reprisal for America’s nuclear assistance to India, China is to sell Pakistan two nuclear power plants, despite its customer’s failure to join the international non-proliferation regime. But the friendship has its limits. China’s main concern in Pakistan now probably mirrors America’s—the export of Islamist-inspired violence, in China’s case to its own restive Muslims in Xinjiang.
Like America, too, it would be most afraid of a Pakistan run by a hardline Islamist regime. Of all the assertions in the Atlantic’s “Ally from Hell” article, the one that probably upset Pakistan’s soldiers the most was the suggestion that, following secret talks, China and America had reached an understanding that “should America decide to send forces into Pakistan to secure its nuclear weapons, China would raise no objections.”