ISLAMABAD Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's upcoming visit to Pakistan is intended to reassure Islamabad that the two countries' energy, military and economic ties will remain tight, despite Beijing's growing relations with New Delhi.
China and Pakistan are set to deepen their strategic relationship. China wants to use Pakistan as a gateway to the Muslim world and as a new Silk Road for China's energy-hungry interior, as well as a balance against India's military rise.
Pakistan, in turn, plans to further rely on China for the bulk of its weapon systems, as a major investor for its ports and roads, and as a counter-weight to American demands and conditions in the fight against Islamist militancy.
Key to the maintenance of this seemingly happy relationship is China's treatment of Pakistan as an equal to India.
"China still looks at Pakistan and India through the same lens," said Hamayoun Khan, an independent analyst and former China-Pakistan expert at the Institute of Strategic Studies. "Whereas the U.S. considers Pakistan as part of Af-Pak and India as a separate country, which is not taken well in Pakistan."
According to a Pew survey of Pakistan public opinion last year, 84 percent of respondents said they had a favorable few of China, and 16 percent had a favorable view of the United States.
TIES THAT BIND
Wen's visit from Dec 17-19 will come on the heels of a similar two-day visit to New Delhi, where China hopes to discuss free trade, China's envoy to India Zhang Yan said on Monday.
Pakistani diplomats like to refer to China as an "all-weather friend" but the reality is more nuanced.
"Pakistan is the only country that can really be counted as China's 'friend', but that's still essentially underpinned by a deep alignment of strategic interests vis-à-vis India," Andrew Small, a China analyst at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, told Reuters via email.
Those interests generally align when it comes to hemming in India as a rising military power in the Indian Ocean or East Asia.
"In a way they give us (Pakistan), say, annually $2 billion," said Khan. "What do we do? ... We're a pain in the ass for the Indians."
Chinese weapon sales to Pakistan, which make up a significant chunk of its annual arms exports, focus less on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency as favored by the United States, and more on fighter jets, air-to-air missiles, tanks and other conventional weapons systems.
Such sales, as well as close diplomatic ties, mean China encourages Pakistan's military focus on India, to the annoyance of the United States. Washington wants Pakistan to rein in its homegrown militants and tackle sanctuaries for al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and related groups on its western border with Afghanistan. China has its own issues with Pakistan's ties to militants as well, Khan said.
China is facing a low-level insurgency by Muslim Uighurs in its western Xinjiang province, which borders Pakistan. On July 5, 2009, deadly clashes broke out between Uighurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang, killing 197 people.
Though it usually champions Muslim separatists around the world, Pakistan deplored the riots and declared them an internal matter, winning praise from China.
In addition to supporting Chinese crackdowns on its own Muslims, Pakistan has taken an aggressive approach to fighting militants who could jeopardize its relationship with China.
"Pakistan is doing everything possible," Khan said. "In our northern areas, we have troops specifically designated for this thing that they should go and hunt any Chinese-related terrorist."
This is a stark contrast the impression in Washington, where Pakistan often seen as not doing enough. A White House report to Congress in October said Pakistan avoids "military (action) that would put it in direct conflict with Afghan Taliban or al Qaeda's forces."
Still, Washington sees China's influence in Pakistan as positive, despite the complex balancing involving the United States and India on one side and Pakistan and China on the other.
"The economic support China provides is a plus," Small wrote. "And I think the Americans are relatively relaxed about supposedly sinister strategic projects such as Gwadar."
China invested more than $200 million to help build the deep-sea Gwadar port on Pakistan's Arabian Sea coast, partly with a view to opening up an energy and trade corridor from the Gulf, across Pakistan to western China.
China also helped Pakistan build its main nuclear power generation facility at Chashma in Punjab province. A second reactor is being built and two more are planned -- a response, analysts say, to the 2008 nuclear deal between India and the United States.
While some view the complex China-Pakistan relationship as largely a response to a rising India, analysts warn there are no easy answers in a complicated region.
"It's not a zero sum game," said Talat Masood, an independent defense analyst. "It's a question of where each country finds itself and gets the most out of the other."
(Additional reporting by Rebecca Conway in London, Missy Ryan in Washington and Sui-Lee Wee in Hong Kong; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)