Pakistan turning away from bald eagle and towards red dragon

Pakistan is turning away from the US and looking east for its future partnerships, with the president now firming up the country’s friendship with China.

Asif Ali Zardari hailed the strengthening ties between the two countries on Saturday as he met with Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo. The senior official was visiting Pakistan to mark the 60th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations and the conclusion of the China-Pakistan Friendship Year.

The visit came shortly after Beijing and Islamabad finalized a $1.6 billion currency swap agreement which will allow the two countries to boost their trade relations and decrease the involvement of the dollar. Currently China-Pakistan trade stands at $10 billion a year, but Dai has called for that figure to be increased to $15 billion over the next three to four years.

China is strengthening its role as a regional leader, and Pakistan is among key targets for Beijing’s influence building strategy. It is investing in a number of big construction projects in the country, including the Karakorum Highway and Gwadar Port, both of which will improve China’s transport links with energy-rich Gulf nations. It will also help Pakistan develop its nuclear power industry.

The Chinese army also regularly performs joint war games with Pakistani forces. Islamabad is seeking China’s military support against its long-time rival, India, while China needs a stable and well-defended Pakistan to stop any future incursion into its territory of extremists from volatile Afghanistan.

The visit comes as Pakistan distances itself from its long-time strategic ally, the US. The year 2011 was a difficult one for relations between Islamabad and Washington, with a number of incidents contributing to the deterioration. The downward spiral started in January when a CIA contractor killed two men but later evaded punishment because families of the victims were paid blood money. The case caused anger in Pakistan when the US said the perpetrator had diplomatic immunity and demanded his release.

In May, US commandos raided Pakistan’s territory and killed Osama bin Laden, who had been living in the country for several years. Islamabad was given no warning of the operation, which angered the Pakistani military. Washington said if it had informed Pakistan’s government in advance, the Al-Qaeda leader would have been alerted, enabling him to escape.

In November, a US air strike on a Pakistani border post killed 24 troops who were mistaken for Taliban militants. It took the Pentagon a month to reluctantly admit their part of the blame for the deadly mistake and offer apologies. However, the Pakistani military do not appear to consider the case closed.

The Americans also have their share of grudges against Pakistan, from the alleged embezzlement of military aid to alleged support for Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, to harboring bin Laden. With relations between the allies deteriorating, Pakistan has more and more incentive to turn away from the US as its key partner and side with China, which challenges American influence in the region.

Joseph Chang, a professor of political science at Hong Kong City University, believes the alliance is beneficial to both sides. China, an ally of Pakistan against India and Soviet Union during the Cold War, now sees the benefits of a partnership with Pakistan as primarily economic.   

Pakistan has been Beijing’s best ally throughout the history of the People’s Republic of China,” he told RT. “Increasingly, Pakistan has a certain strategic value to China because of the completion of the Karakorum Highway, as well as the almost-completion of the Gwadar port. China certainly hopes that it can, through land links to Pakistan, then open up sea links to the Indian Ocean and bring oil through this route, avoiding the overcrowded Straits of Malacca.

Chang believes Pakistan could also profit from the alliance: “China is always very helpful in terms of trade, investment as well as military and economic aid. So having an ally like China will help to much strengthen Pakistan’s bargaining power with Washington DC.