During a year marked by increasing strain on the relationship between Pakistan and the United States, Pakistani officials publicly emphasized closer ties with China.
China was one of the few nations that expressed public support for Pakistan when it was learned that the world’s most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, was living in a town some 120 kilometers from the Pakistani capital.
Two weeks after the covert American raid that killed bin Laden, plunging U.S.-Pakistan relations to a new low, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani traveled to Beijing. At the time, many wondered whether Islamabad was turning to China as a replacement for its extensive military and diplomatic ties with Washington.
Analysts like former foreign secretary Inam-ul Haq dismiss such speculation, saying that a politically as well as economically vulnerable Pakistan has to maintain and cultivate good relations with all major powers of the world. “Neither can Pakistan play one major power against the other. It would be futile and stupid to believe that we can do that and any effort at doing that would be shortsighted and totally counterproductive,” Haq explained.
But Pakistan's relationship with China was not without its challenges. In late July, suspected Uighur separatists in China's troubled Xinjiang region killed more than 20 people in terrorist attacks.
Pakistan-based radical Islamic groups were accused of training the predominantly Muslim Uighur rebels linked to the outlawed East Turkestan Islamic Movement or ETIM.
Top political and military leaders of both countries vowed to fight terrorism together, and conducted joint counterterrorism exercises. Pakistan’s army chief and top Chinese military officials pledged to cooperate.
“Those elements of ETIM who are operating in the border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan even there we had a very close cooperation and we exchange intelligence. We have done the utmost to eliminate this threat of ETIM and other extremists for China,” said General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Pakistan Army Chief.
“Joint counterterrorism training will help us to fight against the regional terrorist forces and deepen the cooperation for more peace and security in the region,” stated General Hou Shusen, China Deputy Chief of General Staff.
These public expressions of solidarity stand in sharp contrast to Pakistan’s relationship with Washington, which was defined in the past year more by its public disagreements than statements of cooperation.
Former Pakistani Senator Muhshahid Hussain is the chairman of Pakistan-China Institute, an independent think tank working for the promotion of bilateral ties. He says China’s longstanding support of the world’s only nuclear Islamic state, regardless of who has been in power in Islamabad, has led to a broad political consensus for close ties with Beijing.
“The issue of China is one amongst three issues in Pakistan on which there is a complete national consensus, the nuclear program, [the] Kashmir [dispute with India] and relations with China, all across the political divide,” Hussain said.
Despite the widespread political support for China, skeptics say that to further strengthen their ties, Pakistan must first address its own deep economic, political, institutional and security crises, before it can develop a broader relationship with Beijing.