The Pakistani Pivot from Saudi Arabia to China

Saudi Arabia’s decision to launch a military intervention into Yemen represents a break with its past practice. Brushing aside the need for U.S. leadership or even participation, Saudi Arabia pushed it ahead with forming its own coalition from among its Arab and Muslim allies. But in dealing with Pakistan, traditionally one of its closest allies, Saudi Arabia is discovering that even close allies often have other priorities.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief of Army Staff Rahel Sharif travel to Saudi Arabia again Thursday to explain why Pakistan won’t join the war in Yemen. Saudi pressure has been behind the scenes but intense to get Pakistani troops into the war. Nawaz’s brother Shabaz was pressed during a visit to Riyadh a week ago. The end of the air campaign may ease the pressure but that remains to be seen.

Meanwhile Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Pakistan this week with $46 billion in investment to build an economic corridor from Western China to the Persian Gulf. The Sharifs promised Xi that Pakistan will create a new special division of the Pakistani Army to protect Chinese workers in Pakistan. The “Special Security Division” will total 10,000 troops and be commanded by a two star. Half the men will come from the Special Services Group, Pakistan’s elite commando force. The force will have its own organic air support.

So no troops for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; 10,000 troops for the People’s Republic of China. There are major differences in the specifics of course: troops for a foreign war versus troops at home; compensation for past payment versus securing future investment; Islamic unity versus Pakistan’s all-weather ally since 1962.

But don’t focus on the details. It is clear Sharif has made his pivot. And like the United States, Pakistan would like to move away from the Middle East and toward East Asia.