May 17, 2011 / 4:31 AM / 8 years ago

Pakistan plays China card with Prime Minister's visit

BEIJING (Reuters) - Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s visit to China from Tuesday allows Islamabad to show it has another major power to turn to just as relations with the United States have faced intense strain after the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilan (R) shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao before their meeting at the Prime Minister's residence in Islamabad December 17, 2010. REUTERS/Mian Khursheed

The visit is part of long-planned celebrations for 60 years of diplomatic ties but the vows of support from Beijing will be especially timely for Islamabad.

“We are proud to have China as our best and most trusted friend and China will always find Pakistan standing beside it at all times,” Gilani told China’s Xinhua news agency before leaving for China.

“To test a friend whether true or not, it needs time and means under crisis,” he said.

“This visit will be a show for the U.S., the Pakistani public and the wider world that Pakistan has other options,” said Andrew Small, a researcher at the German Marshall Fund think tank in Brussels who has studied China’s role in Pakistan.

“There’s no impression that China could step into the United States’ shoes, but it’s a useful bargaining chip.”

An already tense relationship with the United States, Pakistan’s major donor, was badly bruised after U.S. forces on May 2 killed bin Laden in Pakistan where he appears to have been in hiding for several years.

Senior U.S. Senator John Kerry, speaking in Islamabad on Monday, warned that members of U.S. Congress were asking “tough questions” about aid to Islamabad over bin Laden, though he said ties were too important to be unravelled by the incident.

HANDSHAKES AND SMILES

In Beijing, Gilani has no worry of any public upbraiding.

But Pakistan’s government and military are too reliant on U.S. security and economic aid — about $20 billion in the past 10 years — to risk that alliance.

Nor does Beijing want to wade into volatile Pakistani politics, risking its own interests and alienating India, a big but wary trade partner, said several observers.

“At least, this way Pakistan can tell the United States that it still has China to turn to,” said Hu Shisheng, an expert on China’s ties with South Asia at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank in Beijing.

“Viewed from its long-term national interests, Pakistan can’t really sever anti-terror cooperation with the United States, and it even hopes it will continue,” said Hu.

“There’s a lot of loud argument between them now, but that’s also drama for the sake of the public,” he said of Pakistan and America.

A STRATEGIC ALTERNATIVE? NOT YET

When Gilani and Premier Wen Jiabao meet on Wednesday they will oversee the signing of an agreement to extend a copper and gold mining project in Pakistan and “the two countries are also expected to work out a pact in a defense-related area,” Pakistan’s APP news agency reported, citing the country’s ambassador in Beijing. It gave no details of the possible defense agreement.

Chinese officials and state media have also indicated that they will use the four-day visit to cast Beijing as a steadfast partner — unlike Washington, described in one editorial as a fickle and demanding interloper.

“U.S. opinion has not only failed to criticize its own unilateralism in this action (against bin Laden) violating Pakistani territorial sovereignty, it has vilified Pakistan as a scapegoat for its own rough going in its war against terror,” said an editorial on Monday in the overseas edition of the People’s Daily, China’s main official newspaper.

Beijing’s support for Pakistan reflects its worries about instability spilling into its own western regions, especially heavily Muslim Xinjiang, said Hamayoun Khan, an lecturer at the National Defense University in Islamabad who studies China.

“Pakistan is a strategic ally of China, in terms of real politik,” said Khan. “It’s a counter-weight to India, and it’s a counterweight to the U.S. interests in the region.”

Additional reporting by Sanjeev Miglani and John Chalmers in Singapore and Rebecca Conway in Islamabad; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher

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