A convenient alliance?

Published December 20, 2010

To invert Ayub Khan’s phrasing, it is Pakistan’s lot in life to have allies who are masters, not friends. Pakistan joined 17 other countries in refusing to attend the Nobel Peace Prize awards ceremony for jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobao last week. As expressions of solidarity go, this was purely a symbolic one; our absence was barely remarked on both here and abroad. Leaving aside the human rights question, a topic on which Pakistan can speak with as much moral authority as Bill Clinton can on fidelity, it may be time to ask if our alliance with (or servitude to) China is serving our national interest.

The umbilical cord that chains Pakistan to China is a mutual suspicion of India. In guarding against real and imagined Indian designs, Pakistan even negotiated away part of Kashmir that it had earlier staked a claim to in the Sino-Pakistan Agreement of 1953. The China-Pakistan alliance made sense during the Cold War, when India had allied itself to China’s Communist rival, the Soviet Union. China needed us to put a spanner in India’s ambitions whenever possible while we sought an ally that would, unlike the US, reliably deliver military aid whenever we were at war with our eastern enemy. This was an alliance based on convenience not ideology, and out of it arose incidental benefits like the construction of the Karakoram Highway and bilateral trade.

There is evidence that the closeness of the alliance may now be an anachronism. As long as we hew to our traditional anti-India stance, we will always need China to keep Indian ambitions in check. China, though, may not need as close a relationship with Pakistan for much longer. Bilateral trade between China and India is now close to $50 billion, up from below $150 million just 25 years ago. The former – and likely future – rivals are also cooperating on energy and civilian nuclear projects. For the moment, China is concentrating on building its economic strength rather than projecting military might. In that situation, Pakistan is sure to lose out.

While we have significant trade activity with China ourselves, we also need to reconsider its value. Our manufacturing industry is unable to compete in terms of price and quality with China. Despite this, Chinese manufacturers are granted trade benefits, which is leading to the closure of similar small-scale industries in Pakistan. Add to that the massive trade deficit Pakistan has with China and it is reasonable to ask if we couldn’t find a more complementary trading partner – India perhaps, where we could export agricultural products while importing from them the same items we currently get from China.

The rise of Islamic militancy has also forced China, which has a restive population of Uighur Muslims who get training in Muslim countries, especially Pakistan, to seek out alliances with traditional foes like Russia. Even if Pakistan starts cracking down further on militancy, China is unlikely to give us the same importance as emerging countries like Russia.

This is not to argue that Pakistan should abandon its partnership with China. We simply need to diversify our diplomacy. Our reliance on China right now is such that any diplomatic dust-ups will have profound effects on us. And the next time a jailed dissident is honoured, we may even show up.

Nadir Hassan is a journalist based in Karachi. He can be reached at nadir.hassan@gmail.com

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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