With the U.S-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue just concluded earlier this month, all sorts of wonkish proposals for bilateral cooperation are in the air.
But the most colorful suggestion is that of potential US-China cooperation in Pakistan. A growing chorus of voices is arguing that, since both Washington and Beijing desire a stable, prosperous, moderate and terrorism-free Pakistan, now is the time for both powers to forge some sort of strategic convergence.
While that’s a cozy idea and certainly one plausible reality if certain dynamics profoundly shift, as of now it strikes me as nothing but a fantastic notion based on a fundamental misreading of US and Chinese interests and positions in Pakistan.
US interests in Pakistan revolve around ensuring that it does not serve as a base for al-Qaeda, a flashpoint for potential nuclear war or illicit trade, or a complicating factor in the US war in Afghanistan. Washington also views Islamabad through the lens of the broader South Asian region, within which it would like to see more economic prosperity and political freedom and moderation rather than extremism and war.
Chinese interests are more complicated. Yes, on the one hand, China also desires a stable Pakistan because it is concerned about Islamic terrorism in its own backyard in Xinjiang and views Islamabad as not only a key destination for Chinese infrastructure and military investment, but a key energy and trade link with the Middle East and Central Asia.
But, on the other hand, flowery rhetoric aside, the main anchor of the now 60-year old Sino-Pakistani relationship is the Indian threat, and China needs Pakistan to be a destabilizing force to check its Indian rival. That is why Beijing has lavished Islamabad with weapons to use against New Delhi and has steadily bolstered its nuclear program. Put simply, while Washington desires a stable Pakistan, Beijing is quite happy with a Pakistan that is stable enough to allow Chinese investment and domestic stability but unstable enough to check India.
China also has much less incentive to change the current status quo relative to the United States. Beijing enjoys high favorability ratings in Pakistan (84% in 2009, for instance), compared to Washington which has been a victim of virulent anti-Americanism (16% favorability ratings that same year). Many Pakistanis view China as an all-weather friend and harbinger of economic development, and see the US as an unreliable ally and threat to their security.
Beijing has not only won over the hearts and minds of Pakistanis, but exerts significant influence on the levers of power in Pakistan to achieve its own interests where necessary. In the past, China has been very effective in using its collaboration with the military and intelligence services to suppress militant groups that threaten Chinese workers in Pakistan or support Uighur separatists in China. As for regional security, China has been more than happy to rely on NATO forces to stabilize the Af-Pak region while not even contributing logistical support to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
Given the the added complexities within Chinese interests in Pakistan and its relative success in realizing its foreign policy objectives there, what is Beijing’s incentive to suddenly abandon the status quo and cooperate with the embattled United States today? Such a policy shift may occur if conditions become so unstable that Beijing feels the need for more bilateral cooperation, or if it is convinced that its ascension to great power status means not only being accorded more representation and respect, but assuming greater global responsibilities as well.
So far, I see neither scenario materializing. Until they do, Sino-US cooperation in Pakistan will remain a idealistic notion infused with too much grand strategy and too little ground reality. Forgive the play on words, but talk abottabad idea.