ISLAMABAD — There was a familiar ring to recent allegations in U.S. newspapers, reportedly based on intelligence sources, that China is continuing to aid Pakistan’s plans to build long-range nuclear-capable missiles. It is not the first time such allegations have surfaced in the United States, especially in the midst of a presidential electoral race, when passions run high and U.S. China policy is hotly debated.

For Pakistan, the blessing this time around may be that the focus is primarily on China. Islamabad, in keeping with past practice, denied the charges.

For the global nonproliferation community, this is hardly the end of the China-Pakistan missile-cum-nuclear-collaboration issue. In time, there will certainly be further allegations, some genuine, some prompted by political considerations.

While global activists remain focused on Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program, for Islamabad, by contrast, future relations with China remain a central foreign-policy issue.

Successive Pakistani governments have described China as “a long-trusted ally” or “time-tested friend.” Slogans such as “Pak Cheen dosti, Zindabad” (Long live Pakistan-China friendship) have long been echoed by flag-carrying schoolchildren whenever high-ranking Chinese leaders landed on Pakistani soil.

However, almost four decades after Pakistan and China forged close ties in the early 60s, following India’s clash with China, Islamabad and Beijing now face the challenge of adjusting their policies to cope with changing times.

China is no longer in a position to supply military hardware for next to nothing. Although Beijing still shares a wide range of conventional weapons with Paksitan — for example, the F-7 attack aircraft increasingly used by the Pakistani Air Force in the wake of U.S. military sanctions — these are now believed to come with a bill for the routine commercial price.

In recent years, China has also shown signs of becoming increasingly worried about the activities of Islamic nationalists in its Northern Xinjiang Province, which borders on Pakistan.

Additionally, Pakistan’s periodic bouts of uncertainty must have been, at the very least, unhelpful in further consolidating friendly relations between Islamabad and Beijing. After all, Beijing can hardly ignore the political and economic weaknesses of South Asia’s second-largest country, which prides itself on being a close friend of China.

From Pakistan’s perspective, while there is no single crisis undermining its relations with China just yet, the long-term prognosis is hardly encouraging. From China’s perspective, the future of its relations with Pakistan could be as much a consequence of its own interests as of Islamabad’s ability to tackle its biggest problems.

Pakistan needs to focus above all on three areas if it is to prevent itself from becoming distanced from Beijing.

First, Islamic activism needs to be restrained if Pakistan is to reverse its growing international isolation. For too long, Pakistani governments have ignored the activities of such groups in the name of the jihad, or holy war, in places involving Islamic insurgents outside Pakistan. But this becomes self-destructive when it triggers concerns on the part of a close ally such as China.

Second, Pakistan’s internal weaknesses, especially on the economic front, threaten eventually to undermine its status as a country with the ability to defend its own interests. The consequence of such weakness continuing would only be a natural distancing from allies such as China, as Pakistan began to appear more and more like a friend with too many liabilities and marginal benefits. The lesson for Pakistan has to be that the fallout will extend far beyond mere domestic policy if the country’s long-overdue economic reforms fail.

Finally, Pakistan’s nuclear program — which often draws it into controversy with China — offers Islamabad the benefit of strategic parity with India, its much larger neighbor and long-standing adversary.

Since Pakistan’s initial nuclear tests of 1998, the country has been in the global spotlight for refusing to sign onto such safeguards as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And concern over Pakistan’s nuclear status has only intensified in the course of the country’s long dispute with India over the division of the Himalayan state of Kashmir. For many nonproliferationists, the fear is that a conventional clash between Indian and Pakistani troops over Kashmir could translate into a wider nuclear conflict.

The interesting Chinese dimension in the Indo-Pakistani nuclear standoff is mainly that if there is indeed a conventional clash, followed by nuclear one, Beijing might be drawn in simply because of its proximity to both sides. That potential involvement may range from diplomatic to some military engagement.

While Pakistan may look upon a potential Chinese dimension as an assurance that its hand would be strengthened in the event of another major conflict with India, there is indeed a danger of a miscalculation. Chinese diplomatic engagement, though of some benefit to Islamabad, might not necessarily help it to turn the tide of a mounting clash. From the Chinese perspective, only an internally stable and secure Pakistan would be worth becoming involved for, if the world ever witnesses a dangerous military engagement between South Asia’s two nuclear states.

The lesson for Pakistan may be that while it still has not lost all of its cards vis-a-vis China, it risks ending up doing exactly that if it fails to identify and tackle some of the emerging issues that could harm its future relations with its “time-tested friend.”

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