Throwing Pakistan into the Arms of China

Pakistan is a bad ally—but it would be a much worse enemy. What the new Islamabad-Beijing friendship means for Washington.

The Obama administration just suspended the delivery of some 800 million dollars’ worth of aid to the Pakistani military. Such get-tough moves ignore that the United States and its allies are much more dependent on Pakistan than Pakistan is on them. The nuclear arms of Pakistan pose a very serious threat to Washington and its allies. The combination of terrorism and WMDs is the greatest danger facing the West—and Pakistan is the most likely place terrorists may gain such arms one way or the other. There is nothing in the West that poses a similar threat to Pakistan. And the last thing we should want is for the CIA agents and other U.S. military personnel to be kicked out (as many have been recently). They are needed to keep an eye on the nukes and, if all else fails, to grab them.

Closing the supply routes to Afghanistan (as Pakistan did once already) would deprive U.S. and allied forces of many of their essential supplies. Using other routes is much more costly, and they are not reliable. The United States is much better off having both a southern (via Pakistan) and a northern (via central Asia and Russia) supply pathway.

Moreover, if Washington were to cut off aid to Islamabad, Beijing has shown that it stands by to pick up the slack. Its investment in Pakistan has grown from around $4 billion in 2007 to $25 billion in 2010. True, China might be reluctant to anger the United States by writing checks directly to the Pakistani military, but it is already supplying that military with much of what it needs. In May 2011, China announced the sale of 50 fighter jets to Islamabad. (The fighter, JF-17, was developed jointly between Pakistan and China.) Seventy percent of Pakistan’s tanks are Chinese. China allowed Pakistan to test its first nuclear device on Chinese land and aided in its transportations of missiles purchased from North Korea.

Daniel Markey at the Council on Foreign Relations notes that Pakistani officials talk openly about China as a “strategic alternative to the United States.” Islamabad views Beijing as an “all-weather friend” (in contrast to Washington which is often characterized as only a fair-weather friend). China would benefit from an alliance with Pakistan by gaining an alternate route for its energy supply (which currently bottlenecks at the Strait of Malacca in the Indian Ocean). Pakistan offered to allow China to build a naval base at Gwadar, which would provide access to the Persian Gulf. Though this deal fell through, it demonstrates Islamabad’s eagerness to solidify its ties with Beijing.

The United States should deal with Pakistan in the ways business is done in this part of the world. It should stop lecturing and hectoring Pakistan in public, which only fuels the intense and widespread anti-American sentiments in that nation. Intelligence should be shared, but only when it cannot harm our interests—even if this means that most of it will be old hat. Indeed, instead of allowing the whole world to see that we could not trust our ally Pakistan, when the raid that killed bin Laden was carried out, the White House should have announced that it notified Pakistan but the memo (which should have been issued) was unduly delayed due to—you pick the reason—weather, encryption difficulties or a mistaken address. Even if most everyone would see through such face-saving moves, they are appreciated in the Middle East (and, by the way, in much of the rest of the world).

Will such diplomacy get Pakistan to fight the militant insurgency harder, close the terrorist sanctuaries in Waziristan, or better secure its nukes? It may do only a little more on all these fronts, but surely it will be better than if the United States alienates it even more. The notion that the Congress can twist Pakistan’s arm by withholding some 800 million dollars is unrealistic. The notion that we are pushing Pakistanis even further into the arms of China, and that they can cause us much grief, is not.