Media outlets today reported that President Asif Ali Zardari arrived in Beijing, China for his first official state visit since taking office in September. According to Dawn, “Zardari made it clear in an interview with China’s official Xinhua news agency that building economic ties would be his top priority during his four-day trip…” Xinhua quoted the official, who stated, “China is the future of the world. A strong China means a strong Pakistan.” The Financial Times on Tuesday indicated that Zardari “is expected to seek a soft loan of $500m-$1.5bn (€367m-€1.1bn, £289m-£900m) from the Chinese government to help him shore up a moribund economy beset by warnings of a possible debt default.” [Image from Reuters]
The visit is reportedly at the invitation by Chinese President Hu Jintao. According to BBC News, not only are Pakistan and China traditional allies with long-standing economic and commercial relations, but “Beijing is also Islamabad’s biggest weapons supplier and is helping Pakistan to build a nuclear power plant – the second such project between them.”
Although the primary purpose of the visit would be to seek financial assistance in the wake of Pakistan’s economic crisis, [see yesterday’s post] news agencies also indicated that other important agreements may be signed or discussed. According to the AFP, “In an interview with his country’s Geo TV on Tuesday, Masood Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador in Beijing, hinted that an agreement on a civilian nuclear pact with China could be on the cards during Zardari’s trip.” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang also echoed that nuclear energy cooperation would be discussed, stating, “China and Pakistan share sound cooperation in nuclear energy. China is ready, on the basis of equality and mutual benefit, to continue its cooperation with Pakistan.”
Several media outlets framed the four-day visit in light of strained U.S. relations. BBC News reported, “Pakistan is a frontline state in the U.S.-led ‘war on terror’ but in recent weeks, U.S. forces in Afghanistan have carried out a series of controversial cross-border air raids into Pakistan to target Al Qaeda and Taliban militants.” Moreover, reported the news agency, “Correspondents say that relations between Washington and Islamabad were further strained when India and the U.S. signed a nuclear agreement that would allow Delhi to buy U.S. civilian nuclear technology.”
Although Islamabad says it would like a similar deal with the U.S., Zardari’s China visit may indicate a shift away from Washington, particularly if a civilian nuclear deal is on the table. However, analyst Talat Masood noted, “Both the U.S. and China have a strong presence in Pakistan and Zardari will seek to ensure that their joint presence is used to find maximum benefit for the country as it faces further difficult times.” China and Pakistan also reportedly discussed forging a closer relationship on the war on terrorism. The Daily Times quoted Zardari, who told reporters, “We need commonality to fight terrorism.” Because Beijing also views Islamabad as a counterbalance to its regional rival India, it would arguably be in China’s interest to prop up and strengthen Pakistan. It is possible that this visit could be part of a strategic chess game in regional politics.