China’s immediate public defense of Pakistan against charges of harboring terrorists levied by President Donald Trump should be seen as a troubling sign in Washington – for Beijing’s staunch support will allow Islamabad to destabilize Afghanistan indefinitely and with impunity. U.S. threats to cut-off aid and cozy up to India will also amount to nothing more than noise because Pakistan can now rely on its Chinese benefactor, both economically and militarily, for survival.
On August 31, about ten days after Trump unveiled his Afghan war strategy, State Department officials said that it would withhold $255 million in aid to Pakistan until the United States sees progress in rooting out elements of the Taliban. However, The Daily Times in a September 1 editorial explained why Washington’s measures might ultimately be futile.
“Thanks to newfound friends in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and strengthening of ties with China, which has been the single biggest arms supplier to Pakistan since 2011 – the hardline approach of the U.S. is unlikely to hurt Pakistan as much as it would have a decade ago,” the article said.
A day after Trump delivered his August 21 Afghan address, during which he said it was time for Pakistan to cease giving safe haven “to agents of chaos, violence, and terror,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying called on the United States and the international community to “truly affirm” Islamabad’s efforts in fighting terrorism.
“[On] President Trump’s remarks on Pakistan, I should say that Pakistan is at the frontline of fighting terrorism, has made sacrifices in fighting terrorism, making an important contribution to upholding peace and stability,” Hua said, as quoted in The Economic Times.
Beijing’s move is even more interesting in light of tensions that have been mounting over Pyongyang’s missile tests. China right now is very concerned about the United States taking preventive military measures against North Korea because there is little doubt the Chinese would rather see nuclear weapons in the North than a united peninsula should the regime fall. Not to mention, Beijing has publicly vowed to defend Pyongyang against external aggression per its commitments under the security agreement it consummated with North Korea in the wake of the Korean War.
Hence, one can certainly bet China will see Afghanistan as another pressure point – an opportunity to maximize its influence and leverage to make life difficult for the United States, including by backing Pakistan. Other more material geopolitical motives are also at play, according to an Associated Press report published in March.
“The unlikely alliance is a critical part of China’s ambitious ‘One Belt, One Road’ project to link markets in Asia and Europe,” the report said. “Pakistan’s offer of access to the Indian Ocean could reduce China’s reliance on the chokepoint of the Malacca Strait in Southeast Asia for oil imports from the Mideast, and help spur development in China’s land-locked far west.”
The report, citing RAND Corp. expert Jonah Blank, also noted that Pakistan’s military ties with China are deepening, evidenced by joint production of the JF-17 Thunder fighter jet. In fact, China, which is already Islamabad’s main source of low-tech military gear, “could eclipse the U.S. as Pakistan’s favored source of high-end defense equipment,” the report added.
Beijing’s commitment to Islamabad’s is made even more obvious by the $46 billion China plans to invest by 2030 on developing Pakistan’s economy, infrastructure and energy sector.
Also, according to Bloomberg, China over the past four years has directly invested $2.8 billion in Pakistan versus only $533 million from the U.S. Chinese banks have also helped Pakistan address its widening deficits, the report added, including around $848 million in loans in the last six months of 2016.
Pakistan itself, confident in China’s backing, has mocked U.S. threats to cut-off military aid. Trump claimed during his speech that the United States has been paying Pakistan “billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.”
Former Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan told the National Assembly that Trump’s estimates are overblown, claiming that the United States has given Pakistan “peanuts” and not “billions of dollars” in aid for the services rendered by Pakistan in the fight against terrorism.
“The U.S. drags its feet during the payment of the military fund,” Khan said on August 30. “If our bill [for military services] is $500 million, they [the U.S.] sit on it for months… and end up giving us $200 million.”
It is another aspect of the Afghan conflict that one can place in the “no-win” category. If the United States cuts off funds, China is there to fill any holes. If the United continues providing aid Pakistan will boost spending on its military buildup against India while spending some of it on counter-terrorism operations against the “bad” Taliban – in other words, not the ones that threaten Afghan security.