Most countries celebrated this month's slaying of Osama bin Laden as an unadulterated good, but two of them are reacting with ambivalence. China and Pakistan have found the death of the al Qaeda leader an opportune time to solidify a relationship that has a distinct anti-American odor.
Pakistan wants to play the "China card." And China wants to further its narrow national interests, no matter the broader consequences.
Islamabad's reaction to bin Laden's death is understandable if unjustifiable. U.S. special forces felled the terrorist on Pakistani soil without Pakistani foreknowledge. Pakistani leaders felt compelled to appeal to nationalist sentiment by decrying the violation of sovereignty—even if by harboring terrorists Pakistan has lost its right to sovereignty.
It also has reason to fear its standing in Washington. Questions linger about Pakistani knowledge of or support for bin Laden's long stay in Abbottabad. Naturally, there is a steady drumbeat in Washington to reexamine the entire relationship with Pakistan, including the generous provision of aid.
From a Pakistani perspective, it then makes sense to ease the pressure from Washington by embracing China. With a "China card," Islamabad is assured an ally who can stand up for it in international circles as well as provide capital. Visiting Beijing last week, Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani praised China as "an all weather friend"--in stark contrast to you-know-who. President Asif Zardari declared that the Pakistan-Sino relationship was unmatched "by any other relationship between two sovereign countries."
Mr. Gilani also secured the delivery of 50 JF-17 multirole fighter jets. Receiving aircraft from China--already Pakistan's largest supplier of weaponry by far--must have been all the more satisfying coming a month after its arch rival India turned down two U.S. fighter bids. It sent a message that Islamabad's relations with Beijing are more stable than New Delhi's with Washington.
Beijing offers its ally more support than just fighters. While China announced it was happy that bin Laden was dead, it quickly followed with expressions of sympathy for Pakistan and praise for its less-than-stellar record of fighting terrorism. China's foreign ministry explained that China "will continue to support Pakistan formulating…counter-terrorism strategies based on its own national conditions…." From this point of view, the U.S was supposed to respect Pakistan's "national conditions" while going after the world's most wanted man.
Finally, Pakistan and China agreed that Beijing will operate the strategically positioned port in Gwadar, Pakistan. The port has raised concerns in New Delhi and Washington for the ability it gives the Chinese navy to operate in the Indian Ocean.
These Sino-Pakistani transactions are an intensification of a blossoming relationship. Just last year, China circumvented its obligations as a member of the Nuclear Supplier's Group to sell two new nuclear reactors to Pakistan with no strings attached. An unstable Pakistan with a burgeoning nuclear arsenal is the stuff of nightmare security scenarios for the rest of the world, and yet Beijing decided to sell it more nuclear material.
Pakistan's interests are clear here. But what explains China's disturbing diplomacy?
China's Pakistan policy has three objectives. First, Beijing sees Islamabad as a way to distract India from its great-power aspirations. An India concerned about a Pakistan threat is an India that cannot compete with China. Second, China wants to get into the great-power maritime game by operating ports throughout the Indian Ocean. Chinese projection of maritime power in the Indian Ocean can pose a threat to Indian and American naval mastery. Third, China wants help from Pakistan in keeping Islamic radicals from entering its Western province of Xinjiang.
From a charitable point of view, China is simply advancing its narrow national interests. But China's very concept of its national interest is the problem at hand.
China's pursuit of narrow interests, consequences be damned, is the equivalent of taking a wrecking ball to the current international order. It has pursued its interests before with Iran and North Korea, and the results of that are evident. The only reason China can afford to behave irresponsibly in these cases is because American arms and diplomacy are there to save the day.
Indeed, the international order the United States promotes and maintains--however imperfectly at times--benefits all those who want to join it. It produces public goods like the freedom of navigation in the seas, keeps the peace between great powers and leads in the fight against nuclear proliferation and terrorism that threaten the whole world--including pressuring countries that harbor terrorists, even if it sometimes violates their sovereignty. Washington cannot accomplish these strategic tasks if Beijing actively thwarts it.
China's Pakistan diplomacy offers a glimpse of one possible future in international politics. Beijing is clearly building up its power to challenge Washington's dominance and frustrate its goals, but it doesn't provide a responsible alternative to U.S. primacy. Should China succeed in undermining American aims, the world will not face a choice between Chinese or American leadership. Rather, Chinese behavior is leading to a choice between order and chaos.
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI