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Pakistan’s Road to China

ISLAMABAD – Large events sometimes have unintended strategic consequences. This is turning out to be the case following the killing of Osama bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, a military-dominated town near Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital.

The fact that the world’s most wanted man lived for a half-dozen years in a large house within spitting distance of Pakistan Military Academy, where the country trains its officers, has provoked a reaction that Pakistanis should have expected, but did not. The country’s civilian and military establishment has been surprised and troubled by the level of suspicion aroused by the events leading to Bin Laden’s death – many Pakistanis call it “martyrdom” – and there is growing popular demand for a major reorientation of Pakistan’s relations with the world. Unless the West acts quickly, Bin Laden’s death is likely to result in a major realignment of world politics, driven in part by Pakistan’s shift from America’s strategic orbit to that of China.

I have personal experience of how quickly China can move when it sees its “all-weather friend” (Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani’s phrase) in extreme distress. In 1996, when Pakistan was near bankruptcy and contemplating default, I went to Beijing as the country’s finance minister to ask for help. My years of service overseeing the World Bank’s operations in China had put me in close contact with some of the country’s senior leaders, including then-Prime Minister Zhu Rongji.

At a meeting in Beijing, after telling me that China would not allow Pakistan to go bankrupt under my watch, Zhu ordered $500 million to be placed immediately in Pakistan’s account with the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. That infusion of money enabled Pakistan to pay its bills while I was in charge of its economy.