The Times of India reports that Pakistan has named the largest bank in China to lead a consortium of funders who will finance a $1.2 billion natural gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan. Reporting on a visit by the highly regarded Chinese diplomat Dai Bingguo to Pakistan, the Indian newspaper notes that Dai called for the international community to acknowledge Pakistan’s centrality in negotiations over the future of Afghanistan and offered tax free status to Pakistani companies operating in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.
A strategic alliance between Beijing, Islamabad and Tehran would be an interesting counter move to recent signs that the US, India and Japan are working closely with a group of Asian countries to build a framework for regional security and economic cooperation. No doubt there are people in Beijing who are attracted to a geopolitical move that could challenge US preeminence in the Middle East even as it broke the ring of encirclement that some Chinese fear the US is trying to build around it. An triple alliance between China, Pakistan and Iran could further China’s efforts to improve its position in the energy rich and strategically interesting Central Asian countries once part of the Soviet Union.
For now such a move appears unlikely. Pakistan seems more eager for a closer Chinese relationship than China is; China does not want to drive India farther into the American embrace and Pakistan is a somewhat questionable ally whose friendship carries a high price tag. At the same time, Pakistan cannot move too close to Iran without antagonizing the Saudis, and Saudi money plays a large role in Pakistan — including a significant role, it is said, in the financial arrangements of important individuals and institutions in political and military life.
Diplomatic history, however, is full of surprising reversals and openings. Who would have thought that Richard Nixon and Red China would have embraced one another? The US is simultaneously stepping up pressure on China in the Asia-Pacific, frightening Pakistan by building deeper ties with India and tightening the screws on Iran. Leaders in these countries will be scratching their heads about possible ways they could help each other with their common problem.
For now, this seems to be more about wishful thinking and hopeful gestures than about serious politics. The US should try to keep it that way.