“China is our path to prosperity,” said Haidar Zaman, the former mayor of Abbottabad, which lies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Many Pakistani leaders believe the same can be true for the entire country: With U.S.-Pakistani relations at their lowest point since 2001, top Pakistani officials have been actively promoting China as an alternative benefactor that could deliver badly needed economic and military assistance without the relentless criticism offered by Washington.
But the drive to move Pakistan away from the United States and into the Chinese orbit has run into a cold reality: China is just not that interested.
China’s tentative approach to Pakistan helps explain why, despite widespread antipathy here toward the United States, Pakistan is reluctant to force a deeper rupture in relations with Washington, which provides billions of dollars in aid.
Ironically, the same factors that keep the United States heavily invested in Pakistan — terrorism and instability — have persuaded China to hold Pakistan at arm’s length.
“What the Americans are doing here — that’s just not a role that China wants to take on,” said Ashraf Ali, who leads the FATA Research Center, a think tank that focuses on militancy in Pakistan’s northwest.
A Chinese official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject described Pakistan as a close ally, both politically and militarily, and said it represents a significant business opportunity for Chinese firms. But he also expressed apprehension about Islamist extremism here and noted that any attempt to turn Pakistan into a central trading corridor for China would be a decades-long project.
Pakistani officials would prefer a more unconditional embrace.
Both President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani visited China soon after the May 2 bin Laden raid, with Gillani pointedly calling China “Pakistan’s best friend.”
The military here has trumpeted China’s recent decision to supply Pakistan with 50 fighter jets, even as army officials say they would rather do without U.S. military assistance. Top generals have been contemplating what it would mean for Pakistan to take a stronger stand against Washington and receive a greater share of aid from Beijing.
Economic development experts, meanwhile, have been busy drawing up grand plans for ports, pipelines and railways so that Pakistan can reap the full benefit of China’s global rise.
Pakistanis love China just about as much as they dislike the United States: 87 percent of Pakistanis say they have a favorable view of China, compared with 12 percent
who say the same about the United States, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The divergent attitudes begin early: Schoolchildren here are taught that the China-Pakistan partnership is “as high as the mountains and as deep as the seas,” but that the United States has been a fickle friend.