ISLAMABAD: As military ties with the United States continued to sour, the head of Pakistan’s leading intelligence agency flew to Beijing on a secret trip that is seen as part of Islamabad’s wider efforts to reduce its dependence on Washington and open a “broad-based strategic dialogue” with Beijing.
The visit by Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), comes just weeks after a trip by another senior Pakistani military commander to Beijing and on the heels of the sudden departure of the US Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) station chief in Islamabad.
Last month Lt Gen Wahid Arshad, the Chief of General Staff, undertook a week-long trip to China to discuss what the officials in Islamabad described as “the option of a strategic dialogue between the two countries on the pattern of the engagement between Pakistan and the United States.”
“General Pasha was due to leave for Beijing on Sunday evening,” disclosed a security official requesting anonymity. He would not give further details of his itinerary nor the exact nature of his trip.
The ISI has refused to confirm or deny the visit.
When approached, a senior official of the intelligence agency told The Express Tribune that such visits are classified and he cannot offer any comment on it.
The back-to-back trips by senior military and intelligence officials to China are believed to be necessitated by the simmering tensions between Pakistan and the US.
It comes amidst reports of a fresh row between Islamabad and Washington over the Pakistan government’s new restrictions on the movements of US diplomats in Pakistan and the unexpected departure of the CIA station chief.
American media reports claim that the undercover CIA station chief in Islamabad left Pakistan abruptly, ostensibly ‘on medical grounds.’ However, some reports indicate his sudden departure was part of the ongoing tension between the ISI and CIA. In recent weeks, Pakistan’s security establishment launched a crackdown against the ‘private CIA network’ and attempted to restrict the movement of American intelligence operatives in the country following the US midnight raid in Abbottabad to kill Osama bin Laden on May 2.
The outgoing CIA officer was believed to have played a central role in tracking down the world’s most wanted man.
US and Pakistani officials told the American news channel ABC they hoped the station chief’s departure would pave the way for smoother ties between the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency, noting the departing officer had an “extremely tense” relationship with his counterparts in the ISI.
Yet Pakistani officials continue to look to Beijing, a historical ally of Islamabad and increasingly looked upon as the rising power in Asia.
“China is our long-term partner and we have very close cooperation and consultation with them on all major issues including the ongoing tension with the US,” said a military official. He said China believes in ‘quiet diplomacy’ and that was one of the reasons that Pasha’s visit was being kept under wraps.
The official said the Chinese leadership had offered Pakistan a broad-based strategic dialogue in order to help the country meet its growing needs in energy, defence, and other important fields. The move is part of a long-term plan to minimise dependence on the US, he added.
However, another official said enhanced strategic partnership with China does not necessarily mean that “we want any confrontation with the US.”
“At present we heavily rely on the US military hardware … the Americans are the main suppliers of artillery, gunships and our air defence system,” he said. “The Chinese contribution is also increasing but we cannot afford a complete breakdown of our relationship with the US.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 1st, 2011.