The back-to-back visits by Premier Wen Jiabao to India and Pakistan have underlined Beijing’s careful balancing act between two sets of bilateral relationships, both important to it for different reasons. The complex India-China engagement is powered by the rising economies of the two countries and the mutual desire to manage their global ambitions without conflict; its strong strategic ties with Pakistan have been built on a convergence of regional goals. China has been more than conscious that while it engages with India, nothing about this should make Islamabad nervous. It is thus no surprise that after Premier Wen’s New Delhi visit, during which both sides made deliberate efforts to arrest a perceptible slide in their political relationship while setting new targets for the booming trade relationship, his three-day stay in Islamabad yielded enough reassurances to Pakistan that its “all-weather friendship” with China was intact. Certainly, the ties with China are the best Pakistan enjoys with any big power. Islamabad receives financial and diplomatic support from Beijing that has no strings attached, at least publicly. Nor is it at the receiving end of public admonishments on harbouring terrorist networks. Beijing unconditionally sells military hardware to Pakistan, and is the only nuclear power prepared to assist its nuclear programme. In turn, Islamabad is reverential in the way it conducts itself with China, swallowing a crushing imbalance in trade relations and quick to respond to quiet pressure from Beijing to crack down on Pakistan-based militant networks that stir trouble in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
Entirely in keeping with all this, China and Pakistan signed several agreements in diverse fields ranging from banking and trade to space technology and agriculture. Beijing announced a $410 million post-floods aid package, in addition to the $200 million it gave earlier. While in Islamabad, Premier Wen praised the Pakistan government for its efforts to combat terrorism. He balanced this by a studious silence on the Kashmir issue, a decision that will be welcomed in India, especially in the light of recent tensions over the stapled Chinese visas to visitors from Jammu & Kashmir. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani may have been fishing for a Chinese role in ‘facilitating dialogue’ with India on Kashmir but it is apparent that Beijing is keen to reiterate its neutrality on the issue. All in all, if there was one overarching message from Premier Wen’s swing through South Asia, it was that China would not be drawn into a zero-sum game between India and Pakistan.