When the chips are down, as the saying goes, you quickly learn who your friends are.
With the Obama administration's recent decision to suspend some $800 million in U.S. aid to the Pakistani military, the generals in Rawalpindi are once again turning to their "all-weather" friends in Beijing. Although the White House's action is unlikely to lead to a total cutoff of military assistance, the figure is significant, representing more than one-third of the United States' annual commitment to Pakistan.
Reflecting his government's displeasure at the move, Islamabad's ambassador to Beijing, Masood Khan, pointedly announced that "China will stand by us in difficult times as it has been doing for the past years." His statement was designed to show Washington that Pakistan has other powerful friends. Implicit in Khan's message was also an expectation that Beijing would indeed provide enhanced military, and perhaps other, assistance.
Are Pakistani leaders unduly optimistic about Chinese largesse? Or does Washington's loss of influence provide Beijing an opportunity to deepen its ties with Islamabad?
On the face of it, there are ample historic and strategic reasons for China to increase military aid to Pakistan. After all, Islamabad is Beijing's closest ally in South Asia, and both are keen to limit Indian influence.
Pakistan has also benefited from substantial trade and economic ties with China, particularly in infrastructure and mining. Beijing is Pakistan's largest trading partner, a relationship that was worth almost $9 billion last year.
Military ties have been a key feature of Sino-Pakistani relations; Beijing is now Islamabad's largest defense supplier. China has helped build elements of Pakistan's conventional and nuclear forces. It has participated in joint aircraft manufacturing programs, as well as helped Islamabad acquire tactical ballistic missiles, according to Jane's, and sensitive nuclear technology.
China's worries over its internal security provide a further motivation to bolster Pakistan's stability. Concerns about Islamist militancy on its western border have grown since the 2009 Uighur riots in the Xinjiang autonomous region, which left nearly 200 people dead. Violence once again broke out in the restive region this week, though not on the same scale as two years ago. In the remote town of Hotan, state media claimed that police shot dead 14 rioters, heightening tensions between the central government and the Uighur community.
The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), a Uighur separatist group that Beijing often blames for terrorist attacks within China, appears to have a sanctuary in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. TIP leaders were killed in South Waziristan and North Waziristan, in September 2003 and February 2010, respectively. Chinese leaders fear that the reduction in U.S. military aid to Pakistan -- coupled with the impending drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan -- could afford the Uighurs a safe haven outside Beijing's control.
Indeed, Afghanistan looms large in China's strategic calculus. Media reports highlighting the discovery of nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan surely have piqued Chinese interest in bolstering relations with Kabul. With its export-oriented economy heavily dependent on raw material imports, the prospect of cheap resources on China's periphery is understandably appealing. Acutely aware that Pakistan's generals will play an integral role in Afghanistan's future, Beijing will be keen to leverage its close ties with Rawalpindi.
But only up to a point.