Pakistani PM Sharif and Indian Defense Minister Antony are holding separate talks with Chinese officials in Beijing in a bid to bolster ties with China. Experts say this tug-of-war is not good for South Asia.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has chosen Beijing for his first foreign destination after sweeping the May 11 parliamentary elections. It shows how important are the ties with China are for Pakistan.
In the past two years - particularly after the assassination of al Qaeda's former head Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad on May 2, 2011 - Pakistan has considerably drifted away from its biggest Cold War era ally, the United States. International Relations experts say that Pakistan needs China more than ever now.
Though regional and strategic issues are crucial for both Islamabad and Beijing, Sharif is more concerned about Pakistan's ailing economy. Strengthening bilateral trade links with China is on top of his list in talks with the Chinese officials.
Political experts in Pakistan say that Sharif wants to convey to the people in Pakistan that he is serious in fixing the weak economy, lack of growth, rising inflation, and severe power shortage. One of the reasons why the preceding Pakistan People's Party's government was voted out by the majority of Pakistanis was its inability to deal with the protracted energy crisis.
Over the weekend, Sharif will attend a Sino-Pakistani Energy Forum in Shanghai, and meet with the leaders of a power company in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. He will also meet with officials of the China Investment Corporation sovereign wealth fund, China Development Bank, and China Power Investment Corporation apart from the Chinese President and the Premier.
Politics of economics
Asha'ar Rehman, a Lahore-based senior journalist and political commentator, says that though it is too soon to evaluate the performance of Sharif's government, people in Pakistan are beginning to get frustrated. Sharif's new government has imposed more taxes on people, and there is no end to power cuts in sight, he says.
"Things are not going well with the IMF in terms of the loans the Pakistani government is desperately seeking. Due to the anti-US sentiment in Pakistan, it is not wise for Sharif to look too close to the Americans, so his government is telling the people that only China can help Pakistan in the hour of crisis," Rehman told DW.
But experts doubt that even China has an instant solution for the Pakistani economy and its energy crisis. They are of the view that the Pakistani leaders use its relations with China to counter-balance US and Indian influence in the region. Rehman says that "friendship with China" has been a popular political slogan in Pakistan for many decades.
New Delhi steps in
But Sino-Pakistani ties are not as warm now as they used to be. In comparison, relations between China and India have improved over the past five years. The two emerging economic powers share a lot of business interests, which means they are ready to resolve their territorial disputes. Indian defense minister A. K. Antony is currently on a high profile visit to China, where he is expected to meet his Chinese counterpart. Antony is likely to discuss border disputes as well as regional security maters. Experts say the fact that such a high-level Indian delegate is visiting China at the same time as Pakistan Premier Sharif is also proof that China is not ready to sacrifice its economic ties with New Delhi for the sake of Islamabad.
"No country in the world, including China, would risk its relations with India for the sake of Pakistan. It is a complete failure of Pakistan's foreign policy. Pakistan's leaders must change their priorities," said Rehman, adding that Pakistan had nothing to offer to China. On the contrary, Pakistan's alleged support to the Taliban and other Islamists is a matter of serious concern for China.
Experts say Pakistan sees India's growing influence in Afghanistan with a lot of worry because a bigger and more active presence of India there would mean an insecure western border for Pakistan. To counterbalance the US-Indian alliance in Afghanistan, Pakistan is now seeking increased Chinese support.
"Pakistan knows that China is going to be the superpower in ten years. Islamabad is getting closer to Beijing and its alliance with Washington is slowly and gradually taking a back seat," Ali Shah, a Pakistani researcher in Karachi, told DW.
But experts believe China does not share the same goals as Pakistan with regard to Afghanistan.
China is very wary of Islamist activities in its Muslim-dominated areas. Beijing believes the Taliban and al Qaeda, or groups affiliated with them, are instigating its Muslim population. China is certainly not in favor of a Afghanistan which is dominated by the Taliban, who it believes lends sanctuary to the Muslim Uighur separatist groups in the autonomous western region of Xinjiang. China has repeatedly asked Islamabad to use its influence over the Taliban to quell the insurgency.
To add to that, Chinese citizens have been targeted by the Taliban in Pakistan on numerous occasions. Recently, three Chinese tourists were killed by the Pakistani Taliban on the mountainous of Nanga Parbat, which was a huge embarrassment to the Pakistani authorities.
"The issue of Islamist extremism won't completely damage the Sino-Pakistani ties. But China will raise this issue with PM Sharif. China thinks that by helping Pakistan economically, it can reduce the level of extremism in Pakistan. I think it is a flawed strategy," Rehman commented.
On the other hand, experts like Harris Khalique believe that Asian countries should look for a regional solution to their disputes. In that respect, he thinks, Pakistan's improved ties with China can be productive. He also believes that Islamabad should have better relations with New Delhi and Kabul.
Experts warn that India should be careful about isolating Pakistan and getting into a bigger alliance with China and other international powers, as it would increase Pakistan's insecurity and create more instability in the region.
"The ideal situation would be a regional alliance between China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and India. This would ensure prosperity and growth for all nations of the region," he said, adding that regional disputes should be resolved regionally.