Pitfalls of self-importance

January 23, 2011

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THIS week in Washington, China's President Hu Jintao met US President Barack Obama. They talked about increased economic and security cooperation and human rights, currency policies and intellectual property rights.

Multi-billion-dollar deals were signed and Boeing aircraft bought and sold. Newspaper headlines described the bilateral engagement as 'broad' and 'expansive'. Here's one thing the presidents didn't discuss: Pakistan. As one strategic relations analyst put it, Pakistan is at best a 'third-tier topic' when the US and China get together. This low ranking may come as a surprise for solipsistic Pakistanis who believe their country and its myriad woes top its closest allies' to-do and bail-out lists. But it is, in fact, a reminder that Pakistan's troubles unfold in the broader context of regional dynamics and international diplomacy.

To be fair, the solipsists would not be totally off the mark in expecting Obama and Hu to brainstorm about Pakistan. Through 2009, Washington sought Beijing's help in stabilising Pakistan. Many analysts pointed out that cooperation with regards to Pakistan could help the US and China cement relations since both stand to benefit from a stable Pakistan: the US's long war against extremism cannot be won if terrorist safe havens persist in Pakistan.

For its part, Beijing is relying on ports and roads in Pakistan to facilitate the flow of energy resources and trade between China and the Gulf region. And like the US, China is concerned about the ease with which Uyghur separatists might find sanctuary in north-western Pakistan.

On the economic front, too, Washington has tried to connect the dots, particularly as it emphasises economic viability as the key to Pakistan's national stability. In the wake of last summer's floods, late ambassador Richard Holbrooke called for China to step up to the plate and help its 'all-weather' ally manage the natural disaster. Beijing then increased donations for flood relief and reconstruction and, during Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's December visit to Pakistan, went on to sign trade agreements worth over $30bn. As Pakistan teeters on the brink of an economic collapse, Chinese investments in energy and other sectors will prove pivotal.

And yet Obama and Hu thought it more circumspect to talk publicly about their joint efforts regarding Iran and North Korea, describing their cooperation in these security issues as 'good for the world.' Obama recognised that China last year agreed to harsher sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme. He also urged China to maintain pressure on North Korea to cease uranium enrichment and agree to disarmament.

From China's point of view, other topics worth including on the talking points memo were Taiwan and Tibet. Hu took the opportunity awarded by a long press conference to remind Americans that these are issues that concern “China's territorial integrity … and core interests.” Why, then, did Pakistan fail to make the conversational cut?

At the most obvious level, Hu's visit was meant to focus on what US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has described as America's “most important” bilateral relationship. Book-ended by a 21-gun salute and a state dinner, this trip was all about pomp and circumstance, not politics and discontent. (As a somewhat facetious aside, Obama summoned Barbara Streisand to dine at the White House because Hu is a big fan. Dare I wonder who'll be invited to break bread with our president on his upcoming official visit to the US?)

Obama broached the touchy topic of China's poor human rights record to reassure Congress that Washington wasn't shamelessly kowtowing to Beijing. Beyond that, few contentious issues — which Pakistan potentially is — were raised.

For all the concurrence described above, Pakistan remains a sticking point between Washington and Beijing. Primarily, the US strongly disapproves of the proposed civilian nuclear deal between Pakistan and China. There is also an element of geo-strategic competition in this threesome, with the US and China vying for access to supply and transport routes through Pakistan. An ideological disconnect persists too: as the US manoeuvres to support democracy in Pakistan, it does not want its efforts undermined by China's relative tolerance for authoritarianism.

Washington also remains wary of what Beijing might demand in exchange for support on Pakistan, and would rather save the bargaining chips for jointly tackling North Korea.

And, bluntly speaking, Obama had more urgent economic issues pertaining directly to American interests to discuss with Hu: American job creation, Chinese theft of American intellectual property, barriers to US imports, and, of course, China's artificially low currency rate. Hu, meanwhile, was eager to promote US-China cooperation in engaging with Southeast Asian countries, which have recently reached out to Washington in the hope of countering Beijing's increasing military adventurism.

Pakistani politicians who may be following Obama and Hu's latest encounter can take a lesson from all this. There is a terrible tendency amongst our leadership to remain self-interested and myopic even when the country reaches a terrifying tipping point, as it has now. This failure to muster the political will and consensus to take difficult decisions on economic and security matters is spurred by the delusion — or is it arrogance? — that Pakistan is too important to fail, and that no matter how bad the situation gets, someone else will step in to back us up or bail us out.

Perhaps Hu's American tour can serve as a reminder of the bigger picture, of which we are merely a small part. When seen in light of regional economic and security trends, Pakistan's self-involvement seems ridiculous and counterproductive. Having some perspective should serve as added impetus for our leaders to get the house in order and prioritise our own stability.

The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC. huma.yusuf@gmail.com