By Michael Beckley
Two assumptions dominate current debates on US foreign
policy toward Pakistan. First, Pakistan shares a robust “allweather” friendship with China centered on core national interests. Second, Pakistan’s ability to turn to China in times of need insulates it from US pressure and renders hardline
US policies counterproductive. Both of these assumptions
are mistaken. First, China and Pakistan do not share a robust partnership; they engage in limited cooperation on a narrow
set of interests, and these interests have been diminishing over time. Second, China will not take active measures to protect Pakistan from US pressure. As a result, the United States can impose punitive measures on Pakistan without fear of catalyzing an anti-American Sino-Pakistani alliance.
Two weeks after US Navy Seals killed Osama Bin Laden, the Pakistani Prime Minister flew to Beijing and invited China to build a naval base at Gwadar, a Pakistani port approximately 400 km from the Strait of Hormuz. Several days later, Pakistan’s defense minister reiterated this request publicly, declaring: “we have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar.” For many analysts, this event attests to the deep bond between Pakistan and China, an “all-weather friendship” that Chinese President Hu Jintao has described as “higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the Indian Ocean, and sweeter than honey.”1
In reality, however, the Sino-Pakistan relationship falls short of the lofty rhetoric. China tilts toward Pakistan in moments of geopolitical convenience, but does not seek a robust relationship, much less a military alliance. China has three main interests in Pakistan: preserving Pakistan as a viable military competitor to India; using Pakistan as an overland trade and energy corridor; and enlisting Pakistani cooperation in severing links between Uighur separatists in western China and Islamists in Pakistan. These all remain salient interests for China, but they are declining in importance and Michael Beckley is a Research Fellow for the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
wisdom that China
desires a robust
itself both to overly
conclusions for US
now constitute second- or third-tier interests in which
China only needs Pakistan to play a supporting role:
China is more secure vis-à-vis India today than at any
time in its history and therefore has less need for an
alliance with Pakistan; Pakistani political instability
and the technical challenges of building pipelines and
railways over the mountains on the Chinese-Pakistani
border undermine Pakistan’s potential to serve as a
Chinese trade and energy corridor; and China’s success in suppressing Uighur dissent, coupled with doubts among Chinese leaders about the competence
and commitment of the Pakistani security forces, have
reduced China’s interest in counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan.
The conventional wisdom that China desires a robust
partnership with Pakistan lends itself both to overly
optimistic and overly pessimistic conclusions for US
foreign policy. Optimists argue that China’s stake in
Pakistan opens up possibilities for US-Chinese cooperation to stabilize Pakistan, mediate the Indian-Pakistani conflict, and develop trade and energy routes through South and Central Asia.2 Pessimists argue that the Sino-Pakistani partnership undermines American leverage with Pakistan and US foreign policy in Asia.3 But both of these views presume that Chinese leaders actually care about what goes on in Pakistan. In fact, China’s interests in Pakistan are not deep and broad-based, but rather shallow and narrow. On the one hand, this means American attempts to enlist...