China's Wen Jiabao bolsters ties to Pakistan

China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao ended a three-day visit to Pakistan Sunday after inking a string of deals with an ally one Beijing diplomat referred to as 'our Israel.'

China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (c.) waves as his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani (2nd l.) applauds after Wen's arrival to the joint sessions of the National Assembly and Senate in Islamabad, Sunday.

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao wrapped up a three-day visit to Pakistan on Sunday with a warmly received speech to Parliament that pledged closer strategic ties and lauded Pakistan’s fight against militancy, underscoring Beijing’s commitment to a geostrategic ally a Chinese diplomat recently dubbed “our Israel.”

The Chinese delegation had already inked trade agreements between the private and public sectors of both countries worth some $30 billion. The trade deals are expected to bring up to $15 billion of desperately needed foreign investment over the next five years to this nation of 180 million struggling to cope with militancy and poverty. Last year, direct foreign investment to Pakistan stood at a 5-year-low of $2 billion.

Beyond aid and investment, however, Mr. Wen’s strong words of support for its “all-weather” ally highlight a different approach to Pakistan to that taken by the West, which many Pakistanis believe has slighted Pakistan in favor of emerging economic powerhouse India.

“The timing of the trip is very important. Pakistan is facing difficulties in the region with the Obama review [on Afghanistan] excoriating Pakistan, and Western leaders trooping off to India without visiting Pakistan,” says Mushahid Hussain, an opposition senator and chairman of the Pakistan China Institute think tank. “This trip instills confidence in the Pakistani leadership and the Pakistani nation. Even through these hard times, the world’s second-largest economy is standing with us.”

Visits to the region

Indeed, President Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister David Cameron of Great Britain all visited India in recent months without going to Pakistan.

Wen’s trip to Pakistan follows a visit to India where China and India pledged to double their trade to $100 billion. That trip did not offer any breakthroughs on border disputes and other geopolitical differences, however.

Decades of unresolved border disputes after a brief 1962 border war have soured relations between India and China.

Solid Pakistan-China ties

Contrast that with Pakistan, where China has maintained solid ties for six decades. In 1951, Pakistan was among the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China founded two years earlier by the Communist party, which still governs China.

Today, China benefits from access to Pakistan’s natural resources, which prompted several bilateral agreements from Wen's trip, including a $400 million loan for post-flood reconstruction, $10 million donation to the flood victims, the widening of the Karokoram highway to facilitate trade, and a pledge to assist Pakistan’s energy sector.

China also recently agreed to construct two nuclear reactors for Pakistan in what many analysts believe to be a move to “one-up” the United States, and further its goal of an alternative power nexus in the region. During his trip to Pakistan, Jiabao stated that China and Pakistan share common views on reform of the United Nations Security Council. President Obama had previously announced his support for a permanent seat for India.

Wen lauds Pakistan's war against militants

Addressing Pakistani parliament on Sunday, Wen lauded Pakistan’s role in fighting militancy without making reference to Pakistan's support of militant groups. He won lawmakers’ applause by stating that terror is not confined to any religion or country, and waxed lyrical on relations between the two countries, stating: “The China-Pakistan friendship is full of vigor and vitaity, like a tree with thick roots and lush foliage.”

In what would appear to be a reference to the influence of the United States in the region post 9/11, he congratulated Pakistan for having “withstood foreign interference” and “maintained an independent foreign policy.”

Wen closed his speech by saying “a close neighbor means more than a distant relative,” which analysts interpreted as a possible reference to US relations with Japan and South Korea.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s inauguration of a China-Pakistan Friendship Center in the capital, Islamabad, highlights Pakistan’s gratitude and confidence, though some analysts caution that trade-agreements alone are not guaranteed tickets to prosperity.

Bilateral trade between China and Pakistan currently stands at around $7 billion, though the balance remains heavily in China’s favor owing to proliferation of cheap Chinese goods.

“This is the second time a Chinese Premier has gone to India before Pakistan,” says Cyril Almeida, a columnist for leading Pakistani English-daily Dawn, noting the growing economic ties between the two Asian giants.

Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) do not always herald real investment, he says, adding the Chinese are not known for their generosity.

In 2008, China refused a financial bailout to President Asif Zardari, and has avoided the financial commitments to Pakistan that the US has made, most recently in its $7.5 billion civilian aid package.

Says Mr. Almeida: “We should remember that China remains more important for us than we are to them.”

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