Abandoning Pakistan: Can China Fill the Vacuum?

What would happen if the United States left Pakistan to China?

Cutting military and economic assistance to a country in crisis is generally seen as a failure of foreign policy. Such imperial hubris can lead to a miscalculation of national interest and leave a power vacuum in the affected country. In February 1947, however, when Britain announced it could no longer support Greek nationalist forces against the communists, the United States was ready to step in, fearing a communist takeover of the country. The mutual concern of the United States and Britain in containing communism made it possible for the Attlee government to step out and for Truman to move in. Today, another such confluence of interest exists regarding Pakistan; both China and the United States have a vested interest in containing violent Islamic extremism.

With the recent killing of Osama bin Laden and the uncertainty of Pakistan's role, some U.S. lawmakers questioned the wisdom of continuing the multi-billion dollar civilian and military aid program to Pakistan. Amidst a struggling economy, high unemployment and global commitments, could the United States cut its aid and let China fill the vacuum?

While at first this may seem counter to the U.S. national interest, it is important to reiterate the reason why the United States is engaged in Pakistan to begin with. The main objective of the United States in south Asia is to deny terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan and to prevent Pakistan's nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of extremists. With Osama bin Laden dead and the eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan potentially in sight, Pakistan is bound to play a diminishing role in U.S. strategy, while its importance for China, which is also interested in containing terrorism and stability in the region, is growing.

In an interview for this article, an astute foreign policy commentator called the U.S.-Pakistan relationship "a fatal attraction" so strong that both sides lack reason and logic in their thinking when dealing with each other with often negative consequences. An examination of the recent history of the U.S.-PAK alliance illustrates this point. For example, it is hard to deny that from the approximate $20 billion in aid to Pakistan since 2001, most of it supported the domineering Pakistani military, which invested it, counter to U.S. demands, into military equipment aimed at deterring India. Attempts to counter this with the Kerry-Lugar Act, a $7.5 billion aid package passed by the U.S. Congress in 2009, infuriated the Pakistani public as an infringement on Pakistan's sovereignty due to the stipulation that the military must be subordinate to the civilian government.

At the same time, the United States continually undermines these conditions by focusing most of its diplomatic efforts on Pakistan's military and its Chief of Army Staff, Ashfaq Kayani, rather than on the weak civilian Zardari government. As Manvendra Singh, Indian MP and chief editor of the monthly Defense and Security Alert, states, "The major obstacle in the United States' dealings with Pakistan is that it focuses on persons rather than institutions and by doing so is undermining the democratic institutions in Pakistan."

The problem, however, is much bigger on the strategic geopolitical level. After spending billions of dollars in aid, if the United States succeeds in stabilizing Pakistan and Afghanistan, it will play into the hands of China, which has quietly fostered a special partnership with the Islamic Republic government for decades now -- an "all weather friend" in the words of Pakistan's government. Due to the geographic proximity, Pakistan serves China as a future gateway to the Indian Ocean, the Muslim world and a cheap source of natural resources. In the future, should the state stabilize, Pakistan also could provide alternative energy routes. Strategically, Pakistan also serves as a useful containment buffer between China and India.

China's activity in Pakistan has increased noticeably in the last couple of years. In 2007, Chinese investment in Pakistan was merely around $4 billion. In December 2010, Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao signed deals worth around $25 billion -- a remarkable increase in just three years. China also provided millions of dollars in aid for the victims of the most recent flood and for reconstruction projects. In July 2010, both countries held their third joint military exercises focused on counter-terrorism. While the exercise was little more than a PR tactic, China is genuinely worried about the potential destabilizing influence of Pakistani militants on its own Muslim minority in Xinjiang.

China also has been one of the main weapons suppliers to Pakistan. For example, around 70 percent of Pakistan's main battle tanks are of Chinese origin. Back in 1990, China allowed Pakistan to test its first nuclear device in Lop Nor. China also footed the bill for the Nodong and Taepodong missiles purchased by Pakistan from North Korea after the United States refused to deliver F-16 fighter jets and the Pakistani Army had to seek other means of transporting its nuclear weapons.

China's interest in Pakistan is manifold. First and foremost, by geographically controlling the western gateways of China, Pakistan could serve as an alternative route for its critical energy supply, which is bottlenecked in the Straits of Malacca (65 percent of Chinese energy imports -- mostly crude oil-- run through the strait). China is heavily investing in a railroad from the port of Gwadar -- constructed with Chinese money and strategically located on the Makran coast -- to the Karakoram pass leading into the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang. This is part of what some U.S. commentators have dubbed China's "string-of-pearls" strategy, essentially aimed at building strategic partnerships with countries and securing ports and airfields from the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca and across the Indian Ocean to the Arabian Gulf with the aim of securing its energy supply routes. The mouth of the Persian Gulf is only 350 km from the nearest Pakistani port. A permanently-based Chinese naval squadron in the port of Gwadar increases China's ability to project power into the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea to protect Chinese flagged shipping.

The key question: if the U.S. decides to scale back spending on Pakistan, will China correspondingly increase its aid? Pakistan is confronting a major financial crisis. In the last two decades, it has twice come to economic collapse -- once in 1990 and then again in 2008. It was saved only by massive infusions from the United States, Europe, Saudi Arabia, the IMF and China. Blatantly poor management by the Musharraf and Bhutto administrations has been compounded by the global financial downturn. There is insufficient electrical power to meet the country's needs and major cities experience periodic outages and blackouts. Food prices have escalated, as have the costs for the large amounts of oil that the country must import.

Chinese influence in the years to come, however, will in no way approach the level of the United States, and whether Chinese support will ever match the U.S. is questionable -- at least in the short term. Chinese aid is generally quieter and more subtle with fewer conditions attached and driven primarily by economic considerations. While China is interested in combating terrorism and calming its Muslim minorities, the Chinese military traditionally has not played an important role in Chinese diplomacy. Deploying Chinese troops abroad is still a very alien subject to decision makers in Beijing, and the capabilities of the Chinese Armed Forces in counterinsurgency and police training have been largely untested and can in no way compare to the United States military. There is also very little direct foreign aid flowing from China to Pakistan. Overall, Pakistan does not enjoy a high strategic priority in China's foreign policy calculations. This, however, may change should the United States decide to trim down its efforts.

Most observers are certain that Chinese influence will increase in Pakistan in the near future. It is an organic process as a consequence of China's growing power, and there is little that can stop it. China, due to its geographic proximity and size, is a permanent and important presence; whereas significant U.S. involvement most likely will be fleeting. The shock of the Pressler Amendment -- U.S. sanctions imposed on Pakistan and quasi-abandonment of the country after the Soviet withdrawal in the 1990s -- still sits deep in Pakistan's consciousness. In response to the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Chief of Pakistan's Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, announced that Pakistan will re-evaluate military and intelligence cooperation should Pakistan's sovereignty be violated again. The future of U.S.-PAK relations remains uncertain at best.

Prime Minister Attlee's announcement in February 1947 to abandon the Greek nationalists and cede its Raj to India, amidst the worst British snowfall of the 20th century, marked the beginning of the end of Britain's post-war global power status and induced the birth of modern Pakistan. While the United States' presence in Pakistan is in no way comparable to the British situation in India or Greece in 1947, U.S. policy makers should bear in mind that strategic disengagement is meant to preserve rather than diminish national power. In the case of Pakistan, China might be eager to fill the vacuum should the United States decide to trim down its efforts, something that would serve the U.S. national interest well in the long term.

Franz-Stefan Gady is a foreign policy analyst at the EastWest Institute.