Pakistan is under the influence of a dangerous cocktail. It at once faces a growing insurgency led by Taliban and al Qaeda militants, a domestic political system characterized by interminable infighting, and an economic meltdown. Inside the U.S. government, preventing against a Pakistani collapse has become the clarion call for inter-agency coordination. The antidote, however, is unclear. Pakistani officials have long considered the United States a fickle and unreliable partner. For the last sixty years U.S. policy toward Pakistan has oscillated wildly between two extremes: entrancement with Islamabad and an unquestioning embrace of its policies, or chastisement of the country for provoking wars or developing nuclear weapons. Today, Pakistani discontent with Washington stands at a record high. According to recent polls, only 16% of Pakistanis have a favorable view of the U.S., while 68% look upon the United States unfavorably.1 From 2000 to 2008, America’s unfavorable ratings in Pakistan consistently exceeded 50%. Pakistanis believe the United States treats them as a disposable ally—a convenient friend when fighting communism or al Qaeda, but one just as easily thrown away when core American interests are no longer at stake.
In the same surveys of Pakistani attitudes, meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) consistently receives high marks (84% favorability in 2009). More importantly, Islamabad considers Beijing to be the cornerstone of its foreign policy. Since the early 1960s, when Islamabad and Beijing solidified their friendship based on mutual antagonisms towards India, Beijing has wielded significant political, economic, and military influence in Islamabad. Leaders from both countries describe the relationship in lofty prose—from “higher than the Himalayas” to “deeper than the Indian Ocean.” For Pakistan, China has been everything the U.S. has not, while the PRC has leveraged Pakistan’s volatile relationship with India to maintain a strategic hedge against a close competitor in the region. In the past, Beijing has not wanted to engage with the United States on the subject of the Sino-Pakistani relationship. From suspicions of an outright American encirclement strategy, to general skepticism of American commitment in the region, Beijing has been unwilling to accept joint approaches on Pakistan and South Asia.
The facts on the ground, however, are slowly changing. As China rises—whether with peaceful or revisionist intentions—it has a strong interest to develop internally and to protect its human and physical interests throughout the world. With this mindset, Pakistan sits at the nexus of many of its most pressing concerns. Beijing has invested billions of dollars in highways, naval ports and energy conduits within Pakistan, all of which serve China’s strategic or economic security needs. Further, in the wake of Uighur Chinese discontent in the Xinjiang province, concern in Beijing that militant Islamic ideology in Pakistan might actuate further domestic rioting in the mainland has intensified. And finally, while China’s border disputes with India remain unresolved, the two giant neighbors have established a mature framework for discussion that supplements a more robust interaction characterized by rapidly increasing trade and people-to-people exchanges. This rapprochement is indicative of China’s broadening agenda in South and Central Asia.
In light of those factors, the time is ripe for the United States and the PRC to add the stability of Pakistan to the top of their bilateral agenda. As it stands, the agenda is already replete with important challenges. These include cooperating to realize balanced global economic growth, working towards an enduring peace in the Taiwan Straits, achieving denuclearization in North Korea and Iran, and mitigating or reversing the negative affects of climate change. And while officials in the U.S. and China have taken care to prevent the spillover of challenges in one issue area from impeding progress in another, a government takeover by al Qaeda and the Taliban would serve as an endogenous shock to many—if not all—of the other issues on the table.
The United States and China can preempt this shock by beginning a serious dialogue with each other and with the Pakistanis about how to stabilize the beleaguered country. In order to do so, policy makers will first have to understand the matrix of independent and shared links each country has with Pakistan.
This paper focuses on the parallel development of the political, economic and security relationships between China and Pakistan, and the United States and Pakistan. It reviews the origins of those relationships and explains why Beijing, Islamabad and Washington have proved unable to cooperate in the past to achieve measurable security gains. It then analyzes the deteriorating situation in Pakistan today and highlights both the American and the Chinese interest in sustaining a stable Pakistan. This assessment is followed by recommendations on how the three countries can come together to achieve short-term security goals in Pakistan. Finally, it examines the prospects for achieving structural changes that can bring enduring peace to South Asia.