Pakistan seems to have been secretly lobbying in recent months for a bilateral defence pact with China. The efforts have been met with caution in Beijing, however, and officials say there is little hope for an immediate breakthrough.
Diplomatic and military officials told The Express Tribune that Pakistan made overtures to China early this year when its relationship with the US was weakened by several controversies. Islamabad used backdoor and regular diplomatic channels in an attempt to convince the Chinese leadership that the agreement was mutually beneficial, the officials said. “Our view is, and it is also shared by authorities in Beijing to an extent, that this will send a strong signal to the world that Pakistan is not alone … an emerging world power is standing behind it,” an official said.
He added that Pakistan formally raised the issue during a visit by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to China early this year, immediately after the killing of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden by US commandos. “He put forward Pakistan’s desire formally,” said an official who was privy to the development but requested his name not be mentioned due to the sensitivity of the issue.
However, the Chinese leadership, officials said, advised Pakistan not to push for an agreement that could put Islamabad and Beijing in trouble with both Washington and New Delhi. A spokesperson for the foreign ministry refused to either confirm or deny that Pakistan was seeking a formal pact with China, though both countries cooperate extensively in defence production and civil nuclear technology.
“I don’t want to comment on it,” was the brisk answer by Foreign Office Spokeswoman Tehmina Janjua when her comments were sought. Recent diplomatic events seem to add weight to the officials’ claims, though. Gilani’s visit to China, in which he declared the country Pakistan’s best friend, ruffled feathers in the US. One key US Senator said the comments made it harder to convince a sceptical US public that providing aid to Pakistan was a good idea.
“Frankly, I’m getting tired of it, and I think Americans are getting tired of it as far as shoveling money in there at people who just flat don’t like us,” said Idaho Republican Senator James Risch.
Experts appeared to be divided on how China is responding to Pakistan’s request. General (retd) Hamid Gul, former chief of the ISI, said he believed China would go to any extent to support Pakistan but expecting a defence pact at this stage was little too ambitious.
Defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa took a different position, saying it was possible to imagine that Islamabad and Beijing were involved in talks on the issue, as they already cooperated regularly on defence matters. “They (Pakistani leaders) might be trying…and it looks workable as well,” said Siddiqa. “There might be a lot of reservations in Washington and New Delhi. But it is unlikely to trigger a conflict,” she added.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 27th, 2011.