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Monday, May 23, 2011

Pakistan moves closer to China as Obama misses opportunity to stabilize US-Pakistani relations


A plume of smoke rises from the background as a military official uses a phone at the entrance to the Mehran naval aviation base which was attacked by militants in Karachi. (File photo)

A plume of smoke rises from the background as a military official uses a phone at the entrance to the Mehran naval aviation base which was attacked by militants in Karachi. (File photo)
Islamist militants have opened Pakistan to increased nuclear scrutiny after attacking a naval aviation base in the port city of Karachi on Monday that has raised fears about the safety of the country’s nuclear arsenal.

The attacks and the increased concern are likely to revive calls in the US Congress to curb aid to Pakistan viewed by many Americans as a troublesome ally that is playing both ends against the middle.

Increased US scrutiny and criticism of Pakistan may however backfire and push the key sub-continental nation further into ever closer relations with China, an ally willing to work with Pakistan without cumbersome conditions.
US aid to Pakistan to the tune of $3 billion a year was initially called into question earlier this month following the discovery that Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was hiding in a Pakistani garrison town that is home to the country’s foremost military academy without the knowledge of authorities. US Navy Seals raided the hideout, killing Bin Laden in the process. Pakistani officials said they had no idea that Bin laden had been living in their midst, an assertion that has stretched the credulity of many American lawmakers and other officials.

Debate about US-Pakistani relations is likely to be further fueled when US prosecutors this week outline in a Chicago court an elaborate plot that allegedly preceded the 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistani militants in a case against a businessman that is expected to feature prominent roles by members of Pakistan’s controversial spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence.

The attack on the Karachi naval installation by 15 militants on Monday highlighted the vulnerability of Pakistani military facilities. A P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft was reportedly destroyed in the Karachi attack that evoked memories of an assault on Pakistan’s army headquarters in the town of Rawalpindi in 2009.

Lost in the mounting concern is the leaking in recent days by Wikileaks of US diplomatic cables that indicate that Pakistan is not just a major headache. The cables reported much closer Pakistani military cooperation with the United States in anti-terrorist attacks than had been previously known. The cables published by the Pakistani English language newspaper Dawn reported that Pakistan’s military had requested increased missions by controversial drones and had allowed US Special Forces to conduct ground operations in volatile frontier regions inside Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan.

Pakistan nonetheless increasingly sees China as less of a fair weather friend than the United States and is turning to it more and more as its supplier of choice for military hardware and infrastructure. China is also proving to be a cheaper supplier that is more willing to offer long-term credits.

On a visit to China that ended this weekend, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani secured Chinese agreement to sell Pakistan 50 JF-17 fighter jets worth $10 billion. China is also offering to supply Pakistan with J-10 stealth fighters and is negotiating the sale of six submarines. Mr. Gilani moreover walked away from his visit with power plants, dams and pledges of nuclear assistance.

In a move that is certain to alarm the US and India, Mr. Gilani invited China to maintain a regular presence at a naval base at its southwestern port of Gwadar that is being funded by Beijing. It would be China’s first overseas navy facility and would enable it to execute out-of-area operations and increase its control of sea routes in the Indian Ocean. It would signal that China is about to project itself as a global military power and position the Chinese navy close to the Gulf’s energy resources.

US officials have already expressed concern about the ever-closer Chinese-Pakistani relationship. Some officials hope that the military shopping spree will spark domestic criticism at a time that the Pakistani economy crippled by power shortages is in crisis and Pakistanis are being asked to tighten their belts.

The Obama Administration has however so far shied away from the one thing it could do to put US-Pakistani relations on a different footing, reduce Pakistan’s perceived need to arm itself to the teeth, persuade it to look at its national interests through a larger prism than only the perceived threat from its arch rival India, reduce the dominating influence of the military in Pakistani politics and break its links with terrorist groups it sees as proxies in its conflict with India.

To achieve all of that, the Obama Administration would have to strengthen its links with Pakistan’s political leadership instead of endorsing the dominance of the armed forces by favoring contacts with the military and leverage its 2008 nuclear assistance agreement to pressure India to moderate its policy toward the disputed region of Kashmir, which is claimed by both Pakistan and India.

That may be easier said than done. Kashmir has been a festering wound for decades that has fuelled Pakistan’s fixation with India, allowed the Pakistani military to achieve dominance and led the military and the country’s notorious intelligence service to be the birth maiden of the Taliban and foster Islamist militancy.

Reversing all of that is at best no mean task and at worst impossible. But with the United States seeking to reduce its military engagement in Afghanistan, concerned about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and seeking to secure its place in a world in which power is being redistributed to the advantage of China and other Asian powers, it is certainly an effort worth engaging in.

President Barak Obama has taken on the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent days in the belief that a resolution is crucial if the United States is to restore its credibility and maintain influence in the region. Taking on the perennial Pakistan-Indian dispute over Kashmir is likely to prove equally crucial to securing the United States’ future position in an emerging new world.

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