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Pakistan's Relations with Iran, China Face Obstacles

Relations between Pakistan and the United States have sunk to their lowest point in decades. And to make up for the rift, Pakistan has put renewed emphasis on its outreach to China and Iran as possible alternative partners. But, analysts are skeptical just how big a role either country could play in Pakistan.

The U.S. commando raid in Pakistan earlier this year that killed Osama bin Laden was a triumph for America's war on terror. But a setback for relations with Pakistan.

Relations suffered further strains last month when Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing top U.S. military officer, accused Pakistan's intelligence service of colluding with Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan.

And now, with Pakistan seeking expanded trade and security ties with Iran and China, that raises questions about the future of U.S.-Pakistani relations.

Alex Vatanka is with the Middle East Institute in Washington:

"Much is going forward now because of the fallout in Pakistan-U.S. relations as a result of bin Laden’s killing and why he was in Pakistan and wasn’t detected," said Vatanka.

Pakistan and Iran want to boost trade to $10 billion a year. But to do that, they need to improve road, rail and air links.

"It’s really interesting to see a country of about 175 million in Pakistan and country of 75 million in Iran have a trade volume of about a billion dollars a year," he said. "That is less than what Iran trades with Afghanistan, a country that is significantly smaller than Pakistan."

Pakistan is in desperate need of energy. Persistent blackouts are a constant concern. In recent meetings, Iranian and Pakistani officials agreed to speed up construction of a natural gas pipeline despite objections from the United States.

The project also faces security challenges.

"One of the big issues for this pipeline from Iran to Pakistan is that it has to go through one of the most unstable parts of both countries," said Vatanka.

Just last month, an attack in Baluchistan killed more than 20 Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims who were traveling to Iran.

Security and stability in Pakistan also concern China. Last week, Meng Jianzhu, China's minister of Public Security, was in Islamabad to discuss Chinese concerns that Islamic militants use Pakistan as a base to launch attacks in China.

Jonathan Pollack is with The Brookings Institution in Washington:

"There are signs of increased unease in some Chinese circles today about Pakistan, its stability, the degree to which the leadership effectively controls all these different situations," said Pollack. "Some of which, are very much to China’s detriment."

The Heritage Foundation's Lisa Curtis says China's concerns about stability are very similar to the United States.

"I think they are trying to convince the domestic audience that they still have support and that China is more important than the U.S., but they themselves know that China is not going to bail them out, when push comes to shove," said Curtis.

China's trade with India is one telling indicator of just how far Pakistan - China economic ties have to go.

"Whatever the competition and animosities between China and India, the Chinese are now doing 10 times the trade they are doing with India that they are doing with Pakistan," said Pollack.

Still, the analysts say there are no signs China will give up on Pakistan. What they do expect to see, is more assessment of the opportunities and risks Pakistan provides.