Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari completed his first state trip to Beijing on Oct. 17, signing a raft of new agreements with a nation he had hailed in Islamabad four days earlier as "the future of the world." China and Pakistan tied up at least 11 deals on trade and economic cooperation, infrastructure projects, agriculture, mining rights and telecommunications; they now aim to double bilateral trade, which currently stands at around $7 billion, by 2011.
The two countries have a long-standing, all-weather relationship, forged over decades of mutual animosity toward neighboring India, with whom they separately have fought wars. But Zardari's visit comes at a pivotal moment. His fledgling democracy is not only threatened by terrorism, but is also teetering toward bankruptcy. Spiraling inflation, now at 25%, has eaten into Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves at a rate of $1 billion a month and the country risks defaulting on debt repayment loans. These fiscal headaches have been compounded by a flare-up in tensions with its most vital ally, the U.S., which recently launched raids against terrorist targets in Pakistan's remote tribal areas without notifying Islamabad actions that have triggered a firestorm of protest and clouded relations with Washington.
Enter China. With nearly $2 trillion amassed in foreign currency holdings, China's government had the largesse this week to grant Zardari an immediate soft loan of upwards of $1 billion, according to a report in the Financial Times. "As a long friend of Pakistan, China understands it is facing some financial difficulties," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang at a briefing with journalists on Oct. 16. Other new measures include the increase of access Pakistani goods will have in China's markets as well as agreements to launch special economic zones within Pakistan with tax incentives for Chinese companies.
Beyond this, Zardari's strengthening of ties with Beijing sends a clear signal to the U.S. On Oct. 8, Washington concluded a landmark nuclear energy deal with India a pact that upset both Beijing and Islamabad, in part because it enabled India to skirt international regulations regarding the purchase of nuclear fuel, something the U.S. has ruled out offering Pakistan. Su Hao, professor of Asia-Pacific studies at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, says China's foreign policy establishment is "highly concerned about the U.S.-India contract, because it was a unilateral decision by the U.S."
A burgeoning Sino-Pakistani alliance may check what many in Islamabad and Beijing fear to be a solidifying Indo-U.S. consensus in the region. Though no official statement from either government was made, Pakistan's ambassador to Beijing, Masood Khan, told The Nation, a Pakistani daily, that obtaining nuclear reactors and fuel for civilian nuclear technology would be the "main item" in talks with Beijing this week. Apart from being Pakistan's main conventional arms supplier, China has played an integral part in building Pakistan's nuclear weapons industry. In turn, Islamabad allowed the Chinese to build a deep-sea facility in Gwadar, a $250 million project that, once completed, will give Beijing an immensely strategic listening post on the Persian Gulf.
Still, a geopolitical Cold War is not at hand. The fate of Pakistan's government remains tightly bound to the White House, and China's booming trade with India is exponentially more lucrative than its transactions with Pakistan. Zardari's trip this week, though, is a sign of the many poles springing up in the multi-polar 21st century. Su of China Foreign Affairs University insists shoring up Pakistan's economic and industrial prospects can only be good for its historic foe. "Pakistan is such an important anti-terrorism frontier," he says. "Instability there will jeopardize the safety of all other countries in the region, including India."
With reporting by Jessie Jiang/Beijing