Newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has picked China as his first overseas trip. That is no surprise to South Asia experts in Washington who say Pakistan has always considered China as one of its most trusted allies.
Many in Pakistan say China has been their closest friend, and that the relationship with Beijing is more important for Islamabad than ties to the United States, particularly for trade and defense.
Will Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif be receptive to this sentiment? Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings Institution does not think so.
“I am hopeful this is one of the several major outreaches that he’ll do. So, there’s no reason to worry too much about it at this point. I am hopeful that he will have outreaches to India and maybe Afghanistan as well," said O’Hanlon.
Sharif’s party won the May 11 general elections with the promise to improve country’s bad economic situation. So the Pakistan-China relationship should be focused on the economy, according to Aqab Malik at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
“One of the foremost interests is, what I would call economic density as far as Nawaz Sharif is concerned. He needs economic investments from outside and China has been a partner in that to an extent for a long time and a favorable one as well," said Malik.
But depending too much on China has a downside for Pakistan, says O'Hanlon.
“What I am hopeful about is that Pakistan will gradually move towards better dealings with India and the United States, and not simply depend on its dealings with China. Given Pakistan’s location, given the way its security is directly affected by South Asian neighbors, it should not count entirely on China," he said.
Aqab Malik agrees and says Sharif is well aware of the regional changes that have taken place since he was last in power in 1999.
“China and India have developed very strong relationship as well. The dynamics have changed over the last 10 years. There is a new horizon, you could say in the future. And I think Nawaz Sharif’s tenure away from power has made him mature to understand the international settings and what is required for Pakistan," he said.
Sharif begins his trip to China on July 4.