Is it ‘Adios amigo’ in Pak-US relations?

Pakistan-US relations may be at an all-time low, but the country’s relationship with China, its northern neighbour, remains as strong as ever.


Even at the best of times, Pakistan-US relations have been marred by mistrust.

Historically, the United States has gravitated towards Pakistan when it has needed to in terms of its strategic interests. In the late 1950’s, for example, the US not only supported a military dictator (General Ayub Khan)  but also operated airbases inside Pakistan to be used against the growing military power of the Russia. 

In 1962 a U2 long range reconnaissance aircraft took off from Badaber, on the outskirts of Peshawar, for a spying mission over Russia. The plane was due to fly all the way to Norway, but was shot down by the Russians, who then triumphantly put the pilot, Gary Powers, on display to the world.

Within hours of the incident, the Russians warned that they would obliterate Peshawar with a barrage of long range rockets if Pakistan did not stop supporting such activities. The base was closed down and the furniture, china and even the candlebras that once adorned the homes of American pilots soon found their way into the markets of Peshawar.

The incident gave Pakistan food for though, and soon it was building foreign policy bridges with China, seeing its northern neighbour as a viable alternative to relying heavily on the US. Pakistan embarked on building a steady but enduring partnership with the country.

Years later, in the 1970s, it was Islamabad that Henry Kissinger went through for his historic visit to China, an attempt to exploit Sin-Soviet mistrust to bring China on to America’s side in the Cold War. It was Pakistan that played a key role in arranging that visit between its two main international partners. The Americans remained careful, however, not to alienate India, and when the two subcontinental rivals fought a war in September 1965, it was Pakistan on whom the US imposed an arms embargo.

Decades on, Pakistan has diversified its defence purchases, strongly backing local production efforts. It now produces its own battle tanks and fighter jets (the JF-17 Thunder, a recently developed aircraft made in conjunction with China, being an example), and has, according to US estimates, doubled its nuclear warhead arsenal.

It has continued, however, to fight as an ally of the US in the so-called ‘War on terror’. Conservative estimates, however, say that it has lost four times as much as it had received, in terms of monetary value, from its American allies. Moreover, while the US has often accused Pakistani officials of playing a ‘double game’ in Afghanistan, Pakistani intelligence officials are now convinced that the CIA has been running operations on Pakistani soil, sometimes against Pakistan itself.

According to intelligence sources, the recent arrest of Raymond Davis, a CIA operative who shot and killed two Pakistanis he says were going to rob him, may be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Earlier, the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad was outed by as yet unknown sources, with the US being forced to withdraw its top spy from Pakistan after his identity became known. The man who was responsible for much of the CIA’s drone campaign against targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which has so far costs hundreds of civilian lives, was forced to flee the country. Even as his plane was airborne, however, Pakistan was receiving Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on a state visit. On show at a ceremony in his honour was the JF-17 fighter jet, a symbol of the growing partnership between Beijing and Islamabad.

The Americans may not have been happy, but for Pakistan the visit could not have come at a better time.

The US has long supplied Pakistan with F-16 fighters, but the country was never allowed to deploy them along the border with India, for fear it may antagonise the eastern neighbour. In the evolving strategic situation, the US was not just a growing trade partner with India, but was also possibly using the country as a counterweight against China’s rise.

India and China, of course, had their own tensions over territory, and while trade links between the two Asian giants continue to develop, serious differences remain on the geostrategic level.

Pakistan’s relationship with China, though, remains as strong as ever. On his recent visit to the country, Pakistan’s parliament gave Jiabao a standing ovation. This from a legislature that cannot even agree to disagree on most issues!

Pakistan-US relations, though, have always remained hostage to strategic interests. American aid has come with too many strings attached for Pakistan’s taste, and the Pakistani administration has not taken well to being told how it is allowed to spend the aid it is given. 

Where Washington has been hesitant, Beijing has been generous, offering the country large amounts of aid with comparatively little oversight. The two countries are now reportedly working together on developing a variant of the JF-17 that will be a fifth generation stealth fighter jet.

While relations between Pakistan and the US remain at an all time low, there are no signs that the Americans are going to be packing their bags anytime soon. Then again, these are strange times, when predictions tend to be difficult to make, and things which used to take years to transpire can now happen in months, if not weeks. 


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