China's Welcome Bridge to Pakistan

Sign of the times.

Photographer: Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images

American and Chinese leaders like to talk about how they can cooperate in specific areas even as they compete for global influence. Pakistan, where Xi Jinping arrives Monday on the first visit by a Chinese president in nearly a decade, should be one of those areas.

Xi’s trip certainly looks like yet another in a series of power plays by Beijing. He will reportedly announce $46 billion in new energy and infrastructure spending, much of it devoted to a network of roads, rail and pipelines linking the Pakistani port of Gwadar to China’s far western Xinjiang province. China also looks set to build the Pakistani half of a long-delayed natural-gas pipeline to Iran. The infrastructure projects are central to Xi’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” plan to connect China by land and sea to the Middle East and Europe.

Unlike some of China’s other recent initiatives, this one needn't provoke undue concern in Washington. Pakistan has pressing infrastructure needs. Power outages -- up to 18 hours a day in some places -- have hobbled industry and spurred street protests. The country’s two working ports are nearing capacity. The World Bank has estimated that transport and logistics bottlenecks cost Pakistan 4 to 6 percent of gross domestic product every year. To the degree that Chinese-funded projects can help stabilize the fragile Pakistani economy and lay a stronger foundation for growth, they are welcome.

Xi's plan for a China-centered Asia is, in this case, a good thing. Past Chinese pledges of aid to Pakistan haven’t always materialized. Now China has strong incentive to ensure its projects go smoothly, which will demand Pakistan finally establish long-term security in some of the country’s most unsettled areas, including the restive province where Gwadar is located. Pakistani officials have already talked of establishing a 12,000-strong security force to protect Chinese construction crews.

A more invested China should also have less patience for Pakistan’s unsavory behavior. Already Chinese leaders have offered to mediate peace talks with the Taliban and pressured their Pakistani sponsors not to play the spoiler in Afghanistan as U.S. forces withdraw. A flurry of attacks by Uighur extremists -- some thought to be inspired by foreign fighters hiding out in Pakistan -- has cast an unflattering light on Islamabad’s own ties to Islamist militant groups.

None of this is to say that China’s agenda complements America’s, or that it is entirely wholesome. Arms sales and aid for Pakistan’s civilian and military nuclear programs are clearly intended to keep pressure on India, which has also been seeking a larger role in Asia. Helping Pakistan to develop a sea-based nuclear capability (Xi is also expected to conclude a deal to sell Pakistan eight conventional submarines, more than doubling its fleet) or to deploy tactical nuclear weapons could destabilize the subcontinent. At the same time, Chinese support for Pakistan’s military modernization efforts is long-standing. There’s little reason the U.S. should expect to change the pattern.

What the U.S. can do is seek out areas where its interests in the region coalesce with China’s. Beijing is concerned about a rising tide of Islamism in Pakistan -- particularly within its military -- and yet can’t match U.S. expertise in training officials and supporting secular educational programs. Similarly, China is happy to have U.S. drones continue to kill Uighur militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

In theory, China even favors closer economic ties between Pakistan and India, so that their strategic competition is balanced by a healthier economic relationship -- much like China’s own relationship with the U.S. However uncomfortable that dynamic can be, it’s one Washington has no choice but to promote.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.