Analysts: China Unlikely to Replace US in Pakistan
By William Idle for The Voice of America
Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari made a three-day visit to China this week at a time when relations between Islamabad and Beijing appear to be growing stronger. Regional analysts say that while China is of growing importance to Pakistan, it is unlikely to replace the U.S. role as a dominant influence there.
The opening ceremony at the first China Eurasia Expo was full of pomp and fanfare. Greeted with applause and smiles, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari ended his visit to China standing on stage next to the man who is widely expected to be the country’s next leader – Vice Premier Li Keqiang.
Ties have long been strong between Pakistan and China, a country Islamabad endearingly calls its “all-weather friend.” Mr. Zardari has visited China twice since the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound – seven times since becoming president.
Some regional analysts say the recent deterioration of U.S.-Pakistan ties has pushed Pakistan into Beijing’s arms. They argue the combination of repeated drone strikes in Pakistani territory, the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, and suspension of $800-million in military American aid to Pakistan has brought Beijing and Islamabad closer together.
But regional analyst Tarique Niazi, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, says Mr. Zardari’s most recent visit to China is part of an ongoing effort by Pakistan to seek help to address its urgent needs and boost trade. And not necessarily a sign of shifting alliances.
“Pakistan is short of energy resources. It has about 4,000 megawatts of electrical shortage. So, China is helping Pakistan meet that shortage of electricity,” Niazi said.
One of the ways that China is doing that is by building massive hydropower projects in both Pakistan’s northern region of Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.
Niazi notes that representatives from both regions traveled to China this week with Mr. Zardari. Pakistan’s president is constantly focused on three things, he adds: investment, trade and economic development.
“President Zardari, especially I must say, that he is the first leader of Pakistan whose focus is almost entirely on economic development and developing business relationships with not only the public sector and the government sector of China, but the private sector also,” Niazi said.
When Mr. Zardari stepped into office, he pledged to visit China every three months – and for the most part has kept that promise. Since then, analysts say he has inked deals that will raise China’s overall investment in Pakistan from $20-billion to more than $50-billion.
China is eager to boost trade and investment in the region too.
At the opening ceremony of the China Eurasia Expo, Commerce Minister Chen Deming highlighted how China was reaching out to Asian and European countries at a time when the world economy has yet to recover from the global financial crisis.
Chen says China is moving faster in opening its western region and border areas to promote regional development. He says China is taking a big step forward to deepening development and cooperation between Asian and European countries.
And the benefits flow both ways.
“I would say that the best way to think about the current situation is that China is expanding in all directions, its power is growing, and it is looking north, south, east and west. And when it looks to Pakistan it sees potential in terms of access to Central Asia, Central Asia energy markets. It sees access to the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean,” said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations for India, Pakistan and South Asia.
Markey says that while Pakistan has been reaching out recently to China, in part to show Washington it has options, he is not convinced Beijing is interested in seeing a real rupture between Islamabad and Washington.
“My sense is that, yes, over the long term, China would like to be the dominant influence in Pakistan and really expand its influence throughout the region, which would probably mean a lesser influence for the United States. But, in the short time, China has been very comfortable essentially free-riding off of whatever stability and security the United States has provided and that they do not want to change,” Markey said.
He says one reason for that is because a rupture in ties between Pakistan and the United States could trickle over into relations between Beijing and Washington, and there the two already have enough to deal with as it is.