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After bin Laden: Could mistrust between US and Pakistan be opportunity for China?

Some influential Chinese analysts are suggesting that the mood of mistrust between the US and Pakistan might offer Beijing a chance to wean its oldest regional ally off its dependence on US security assistance.

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The manner in which the US sent special forces deep into Pakistani territory to attack Mr. bin Laden’s home without informing the Pakistani government, and the subsequent revelation that bin Laden had been living in Pakistan for several years before his death, have deepened the mistrust between Washington and Islamabad.

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That might offer China an opportunity to step up its security role in Pakistan, already based firmly on a long history of arms sales.

Only last week the Pakistani Foreign Minister Salman Bashir was in Beijing for the fourth round of a strategic dialog with China at which the two sides agreed to deepen coordination on “matters relating to counter-terrorism and the imperative need of promoting stability and peace in Afghanistan” according to the Associated Press of Pakistan.

“We have common strategic interests so our relationship is stable” says Professor Yan. “Both sides need to keep their border safe, to prevent cross-border terrorism, and to keep the regional balance of stability.”

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“We trust Pakistan,” adds Shen Dingli, a foreign policy specialist at Fudan University in Shanghai. “The Chinese government has never complained about our inter-government intelligence cooperation, and I have never heard a Chinese official say that Pakistan is not a reliable friend.”

At the same time, China appears to be reluctant to take a leading role in the fight against terrorism, for fear of attracting the same sort of hostility from Islamic militants from which America has suffered.

“It’s not worth the risk at this stage,” says David Zweig, who teaches at the Centre for Chinese Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “They are better off below the radar, especially as Chinese companies step out more into the world and attract more attention.”

In July 2009 the Chinese government warned its citizens working in Algeria to be on the alert, following threats against them by al Qaeda-linked groups in North Africa promising vengeance for a crackdown in Xinjiang against Muslim rioters in which nearly 200 people died.

Although Chinese diplomats face the same frustrations in Pakistan as their US counterparts, who often complain that elements within the government, such as the ISI intelligence agency, work with terrorists rather than against them, Beijing has taken a different tack from Washington in dealing with the authorities in Islamabad, says Professor Shen.

“To secure their support you have to convey your message softly, showing respect in public,” Shen argues. “If you do too much, the government comes under double pressure, from outside, and from within the system.”

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