In conversations with the Afghan leadership during their visit to Kabul last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other top Indian officials were stunned to hear that Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani had told their Afghan hosts, during their own visit to Kabul last month, that upon the withdrawal of the Americans from Afghanistan, China should be, both, encouraged and allowed to fill in the vacuum.
I suppose the pieces of the jigsaw were falling into place quite nicely —if only that chap, Osama bin Laden, hadn’t rudely disrupted all those carefully coordinated plans in Islamabad and Beijing.
China is easily the world’s most interesting power, both because of its phenomenal economic rise and because of the debate taking place within the country over the kind of political power it should exercise across the world. And Pakistan, long Beijing’s special friend, is now helping it become top dog in Middle Asia as well.
Sometimes, I wonder why — even if many of you think that is an utterly naive thought. First of all, Pakistan and China share what has come to be known as the “all-weather friendship, deeper than the seas and higher than the mountains”, a turn of phrase that commends the creative juices on both sides.
China has helped Pakistan build both bridges and nuclear plants over the years, and, as the Pakistan prime minister’s very successful just-concluded visit to Beijing demonstrates, friendship cements the permanent interests of both nations.
Of course, India is closely watching the outcome of Gilani’s warm handshake with Hu Jintao, but it seems to me that, this time around, there is a subtle change in Delhi’s reaction to the Pakistani-Chini bhai-bhai bonhomie.
Not that Delhi will underplay the deep significance of Gilani’s visit, which includes the promise of additional nuclear reactors to neutralise the importance of the Indo-US nuclear deal, as well as more Chinese fighter jets to balance the 126-fighter jet deal that India is soon likely to finalise.
The fact is that, for the first time, India holds a card that has the capacity to balance the Pakistan-China primary relationship, and this is the $60 billion trade that is significantly in China’s favour. By 2015, this figure is likely to touch $100 billion annually.
My point here is that Comrade Hu will warmly shake the hand of ‘old friend’ Gilani, but he is smart enough to know his own strategic limits. He knows there is too much at stake in the India-China relationship to make promises he can’t keep with Pakistan.
Which brings me to the question of friendship. Who is Pakistan’s best friend? Not the Americans. Certainly the Saudis, and by all accounts, the Chinese. Sometimes I wonder where India fits in, if it does at all. So here’s my question: Pakistan and China must promote each other’s interests, because of the extremely special nature of their relationship, in Afghanistan as well as the rest of South Asia. But let’s not confuse that feeling with friendship.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2011.
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