Renewed strains in relations between Pakistan and the United States following last week's killing of Osama bin Laden have been seen in China as opening the door for closer engagement with Islamabad.

According to officials and analysts here, China is keen to further tighten its already close relationship with its long-term strategic ally, driven by the view that the country is going to play a crucial, even defining, role in Afghanistan, amid declining U.S. influence there.

With the expected withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan from July, coupled with widely-held perceptions that the death of the al-

Qaeda leader will inevitably see a toning down of the so-called “war on terror”, officials and analysts here see Pakistan as providing a crucial foothold for China in the region. Even if the U.S. decides to scale back assistance to Pakistan, they said, China would be prepared to step up financial and economic assistance to back its strategic ally.

“We see that Pakistan is going to play a very important role in Afghanistan, going forward,” said Zhao Gancheng, director of South Asia Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. “If Pakistan does not cooperate with the Afghan government, or with the U.S. for that matter, a political solution is not going to be achieved,” he told The Hindu.

Even before bin Laden's death, U.S. media reports claimed that Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had called on Afghan officials to engage with China more, with increasing criticism of U.S.-led efforts for a military solution. Now, while Chinese officials publicly say they expect the U.S. and Pakistan to tide over current differences, they are also growing increasingly critical of Washington's pressure on Islamabad.

“Cooperation between the United States intelligence and Pakistan has often led to a lot of disputes over the last couple of years,” said Mr. Zhao. “The U.S. accuses Pakistan of taking irresponsible actions, and not fully devoting itself to the U.S. campaign against terror.”

In recent days, Chinese officials have made clear they are fully backing Pakistan amid its differences with Washington, rejecting criticism from the West — and India — of its failure to crack down on terrorist groups operating on its soil.

While other Chinese analysts have downplayed the current strains between Pakistan and the U.S., they have also pointed to the contrasting solidity of Sino-Pakistan ties. “I don't think Pakistan-U.S. relations will be troubled so much,” said Hu Shisheng, a South Asia scholar at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). “The Americans still need Pakistan, for regional stabilisation and counterterrorism.”

But China, he said, did not carry suspicions about the Pakistani military. “We believe fully the Pakistani military's positions,” he said. “But what the Americans believe is a different question altogether.”

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