Ng Han Guan/AP
In this photo taken on May 12, a Chinese man walks past a magazine front page featuring Osama bin Laden at a newsstand in Beijing. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani meets his counterpart in China this week.

What Pakistan Prime Minister Gilani wants from China

The Pakistan premier may be trying to forge a loose alliance between China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to undermine US influence in the region.

As Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani meets his counterpart in China this week one country will likely be hidden somewhere on the agenda: Afghanistan.

By traveling to China, Pakistan may be trying to underscore China's value as a counterweight to the US. Mr. Gilani has reportedly also tried to bring Afghanistan into China’s camp to form a de facto alliance between the three countries.

Such a pact could shift the balance of power in the region. China has watched with some concern as the US develops a strong foothold in Central Asia and would like to expand its influence. But while Afghan President Hamid Karzai has often butted heads with US officials, it remains unlikely that he would join Gilani to steer the nation away from a strategic alliance with the US.

“Afghanistan cannot get as much benefit from other treaties as they have from their with America,” says Ahmad Sayeedi, an independent political analyst in Kabul and former Afghan diplomat to Pakistan. “If we look to the nature of most international treaties, except for NATO, they are just symbolic. They haven’t taken any major actions until now.”

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Neighboring China sees Afghanistan as a valuable market for its goods. The two countries have had official diplomatic ties since 1955. A Chinese company signed a contract to develop copper mines in Aynak, which south of Kabul, that are expected to bring $1 billion a year to Afghanistan in taxes and fees. Even President Obama has acknowledged the importance of China in Afghanistan. During a visit to Beijing in late 2009, he asked China to help stabilize Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Still, Afghanistan is not in a position to turn its back on the US, the world’s preeminent economic and military power. US investment in Afghanistan constitutes more than $55 billion in foreign aid alone since the war began. Meanwhile, the US Army spends $120 billion a year to support its efforts in Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan wants to have good relations with China, but limited relations,” says Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, the head of the Regional Studies Center of Afghanistan. “The relationship with the United States is much more important for Afghanistan.”

Karzai has visited China a number of times to strengthen economic ties with China, but a special agreement with Pakistan would be much more difficult to justify as Pakistan remains deeply unpopular within Afghanistan and is often accused of contributing to the region's instability. Karzai recently reemphasized that if the US and NATO want to combat terrorism they should focus on Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

“Pakistan was saying that they’re a good friend of the US in its fight against terrorism, but then they found bin Laden there, so how can you trust this country?” Says Farouq Meranai, a former member of Parliament for Nangarhar province. “Afghanistan must have good relations with its neighbors, but this relationship should not affect the strategic friendship with the United States.”

Meanwhile, relations between the US and Pakistan are set to be tested even further after a NATO helicopter attacked a Pakistani outpost along the border, injuring at least to Pakistani soldiers on Tuesday.

In a trip to Pakistan Monday, US Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts warned that members of Congress were asking “tough questions” about aid to Pakistan in the wake of the bin Laden raid.

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