Wen Extends Support to Embattled Pakistan

The Chinese premier received a warm welcome in Pakistan. He is one of the few friends the country has left.

Premier Wen Jiabao of China praised Pakistan’s efforts at combating terrorism on Sunday and promised to further advance the two countries’ strategic partnership in a speech before parliament. Over the weekend China and Pakistan signed some $15 billion worth of trade deals which is just half of the total value of the agreements signed during the premier’s three day trip to the country.

Bilateral trade between China and Pakistan has grown rapidly in recent years. At a business summit in Islamabad this Saturday, Wen pointed out that in 2002, trade between the two countries amounted to just $1 billion. After the signing of a free-trade agreement in 2006, last year, that number had risen to nearly $7 billion.

China has long been a friend of Pakistan’s, an alliance that is largely inspired by shared animosity with India. Pakistan’s president visits Beijing regularly, several times a year indeed and although the Chinese preferred to work with his predecessor, the more authoritarian General Pervez Musharraf, they gladly continue commerce and an exchange of arms technology up to this very day. China is one of Pakistan’s largest weapons suppliers and currently building two nuclear reactors in the country.

As the Chinese are also set on expanding their economic ties with South Asia, Sino-Indian rivalry is heating up. New Delhi frets being surrounded by a Chinese string of pearls ranging from Hong Kong to Port Sudan with naval stations in Sri Lanka and Pakistan in between.

During his visit to India last week the premier tried to convey the message that there is enough space in the world for China and India to develop together, even cooperate. But India’s political allegiance with the United States is a complicating factor.

When he came to India last month, President Barack Obama called for closer business ties with India and affirmed American support for the country’s bid to permanent United Nations Security Council membership. From the American perspective, securing a stable working relationship with India is pivotal. With some 1.2 billion people and an economy that is booming, both in manufacturing and services, India acts as a natural check on China’s ambitions. It is difficult to imagine a centralized, semi-democratic government taking shape in Kabul without India’s support or at least consent moreover.

At the same time, the war in Afghanistan has spilled over into the mountainous tribal areas of western Pakistan and America needs Pakistani support to fight terrorism in the area. The administration’s most recent assessment of the war specifically pointed at sanctuaries in Pakistan as detrimental to the American counterinsurgency effort. Should American aid for Pakistan disappear, it will have even less reason to destroy these safe havens and be tempted to turn to China or Saudi Arabia or both for support.

The Saudis rather prefer an Islamist regime over an Afghan government allied too closely with the West while the Chinese will jump on any opportunity to strengthen Pakistan as a counterweight to India’s rapid ascension. New Delhi may be able to persuade the Saudis otherwise as its own bilateral relation with Riyad is improving but China’s interference can only amplify an already fragile nuclear balance as Pakistan’s ties with Muslim fundamentalists will pose a constant threat to India’s security.

The United States have tried to convince the Chinese that they should exert greater pressure on Islamabad to crush the Taliban insurgency along its Afghan frontier but it is difficult for President Obama to make that case while his administration appears to side with India unequivocally.

The president’s latest Asia trip may have only confirmed suspicion about America’s true allegiances among the Chinese and Pakistanis. Neither were on Obama’s itinerary while a joint statement of the president’s and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recognized India’s role in East Asia.

The three great powers involved share similar interests however. China is India’s largest trade partner and despite geopolitical competition, they are united in opposition to Western tariffs, nuclear proliferation and Islamic extremism. Wen would not recognize that specifically while in Pakistan hough. “The fight against terrorism should not be linked with any religion or ethnic group,” he said as lawmakers burst into applause. Yet China is coping with a separatist threat of its own which is increasingly looking at Islam for ideology.