ISLAMABAD — As the United States and China were trying to resolve their standoff over the downing of a Chinese plane and the subsequent landing of a U.S. surveillance aircraft on Hainan Island, Pakistan was preparing to welcome Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji.
Rongji’s visit marked another important milestone in China’s relations with Pakistan. It was just a coincidence that China and Pakistan’s effort to rekindle old ties took place as Washington and Beijing were trying to manage yet another crisis in their relationship.
Pakistan’s relationship with China has evolved since the days of the Cold War, when Islamabad positioned itself as a key Western ally while building a committed friendship with communist China. Although the days of the Cold War are gone and China’s commitment to communism has faded, the relationship continues based on strategic interests.
Throughout its 54-year history as an independent state, Pakistan has traditionally filled the holes in its military arsenal with Chinese hardware, especially during periods of Western sanctions. Periodically the two countries have faced Western criticism and punitive measures due to allegations that China has aided the development of Islamabad’s nuclear and missile programs.
For Pakistani policymakers, Chinese technology may not be the best in terms of sophistication but Beijing remains a trusted supplier, willing to assure that arms supplies continue to flow and no regard will be given to political considerations. Although in recent years Pakistan has enjoyed considerable success in its efforts to use indigenous technology to build its nuclear and missile capability, it still needs to import conventional hardware from China.
Pakistan recently reached another milestone when it successfully commissioned the Chashma nuclear-power plant, which was built with Beijing’s assistance. Nuclear experts used the opportunity to predict that Chashma would be the first of a number of projects in which Pakistan uses its nuclear technology to commission power projects that will help the country overcome its chronic power shortages.
Pakistan and China’s relationship is based on three overwhelming issues.
First, China and Pakistan’s unresolved problems with India mean the two countries sharing a common enemy. In recent years, despite periodic suggestions of a warming of ties between Beijing and New Delhi, the two sides have not resolved their dispute. For Pakistan and India, South Asia’s nuclear-armed neighbors, the prospects for a settlement of the Kashmir problem appear distant. Thus China and Pakistan are likely to continue sharing important security concerns for the foreseeable future.
Second, as China reforms its economy and opens its markets to the outside world, it will continue to seek security in a variety of areas, including its borders and internal stability.
In recent years periodic reports of Islamic activism in northern China and its links to Pakistan have been a source of concern for the Chinese authorities. The regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler, now appears to be taking steps to tackle Islamic activism in Pakistan, especially that which affects Chinese security. For Pakistan’s strategists, a traditional emphasis on maintaining close ties with China will quell Islamic nationalist movements before they expand into China.
While it may be premature to predict the outcome of Rongji’s visit, many analysts note an agreement may have been made to exchange information and build a strategy to tackle the spread of Islamic nationalism in China.
Finally, Pakistan has traditionally backed China’s bid to emerge as a leader of the Third World. In the years ahead, contentious issues ranging from environmental concerns to global trade may place Beijing in conflict with Western interests, leading China to increase its claim to leadership of the developing countries.
As Beijing continues those efforts, allies such as Pakistan will remain an asset for China, especially considering the prospect of continuous tangles with the West, most notably with the United States.
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