Apart from the many MoUs signed, apparently Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif’s trip to China merely undid the damage caused by the PTI sit-in, which prevented the Chinese President from visiting Islamabad. Actually, it also played a part in the ongoing attempt by the US to ‘contain’ China.

The US views Pakistan as in the Chinese camp. That means that Pakistan is not as firmly in the American camp as it would like. It should not be forgotten that while the US sees China as a threat that needs to be contained, it also sees China as one of its most important trading partners. While China has run up huge trade surpluses with the US, it has also accumulated vast reserves of US dollars. China is financing the US government’s deficit, and its apparently inexhaustible appetite for US dollars has meant that the US is in the happy position of obtaining tangible and consumable goods in exchange for dollars, which it merely prints, as the dollar has no backing: it cannot be exchanged for anything, certainly not gold.

However, the US also sees China as a power to be contained. To do so, it not only depends on Japan and South Korea, which it occupied in 1945, but on India. India until recently was allied to the USSR, and inherited from the Raj a slew of disputes with China. It even had a war with China over its North-Eastern border regions, now Arunachal Pradesh. Its disputes extended into the North-West, and became tangled there with the Pakistani issue of the Kashmir dispute. Indeed, a tripartite border agreement exists, which awaits India’s inclusion after the Kashmir issue is resolved. Already, Pakistan has vacated territory and handed it over to China.

Pakistan’s relationship with China may have begun because of a mutual riling by India, but it was sealed by the Pakistani facilitation of the US’s outreach to China. Pakistan played an instrumental role in President Nixon’s historic visit to China. That marked not just the rift within the Communist camp becoming public, but also signaled the defeat of the communists in the Cold War. However, for that, the USSR had to invade Afghanistan, which not only involved the US, but also Pakistan. One of the results of that was the revival of the East Turkestani question. Some of the foreigners who fought in Afghanistan were Uighurs, from China’s Xinjiang province. They wanted to go back to Xinjiang and free it from the Chinese yoke. The result of 9/11, and the US occupation of Afghanistan, was that these militants based themselves in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and became a source of problems in a relationship that had hitherto been smooth.

Pakistan’s being part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, as well as the Asia-Pacific Forum, owes itself to being on the same side as China in the War on Terror. It must be noted that while the US and China are on the same side in the War on Terror, their emphases are a little different. The commonality is Pakistan. It is thus essential to both that it be with them in the War on Terror, or else it would mean a conflict with an allied country.

At the same time, China wants to sort out its issues with India, in preparatory to launching itself as a member of BRICS. This club, which includes Brazil and Russia, gained a step towards formalization by its recent formation of a bank, the New Development bank, and thus staked a claim to being the next developed nations behind the G-8, which includes Russia. That the Bank is headquartered in Shanghai reflects the way the BRICS expect to develop. It is especially significant that Beijing is not its headquarters. While US President Barack Obama was in China to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum, it was also the first leg of a visit to the region. He will then go to Myanmar, which he also visited earlier this year, and then Australia, which is hosting the G-20 Summit. In spring this year, he ticked off South Korea, Japan and Malaysia. Mian Nawaz having been in China just before him is significant.

Clearly, the US has developed stakes in South Asia. Equally clearly, it sees China as its rival here, not Russia. It sees Russia as a rival, but in Eastern Europe. India’s distancing itself from Russia has been accompanied by Pakistani attempts to cozy up to Russia. However, a single helicopter deal does not represent a defence partnership, no matter how hard the Indian establishment might squawk.

Pakistan is in the middle of a little pivot of its own, as it sees the US’s simultaneous decline and the rise of China. India’s parallel rise is seen as a problem, as it might be the point at which Pakistan’s attempts at parity, which it has made all the decades of its existence, end: not unless it latches on to Chinese coattails.

The US has established that China is the coming power, and needs India to counter it. India has fallen in with this, more for historical reasons than anything else, and because it sees this as a means of detaching Pakistan’s oldest ally. Pakistan thus finds the US less ready to absorb any perceived misbehavior, and readier to listen to the official Indian line. The Pentagon report that Pakistan is helping the Haqqani Network seems written out of an Indian script. And was marked by jubilation in New Delhi, and much crowing of ‘I told you so.’ It does not matter that Pakistani forces are busy fighting the very same Haqqani Network in Operation Zarb-i-Azab.

It is the changed US view of Pakistan in the region that is causing this disturbance. The US finds itself ready enough to support India in its illegal occupation of Kashmir, so long as it maintains the peace in the region, and does not go to war with a nuclear-armed neighbour. The Wahga blast must be seen in that context. The message would be that the armed forces can either fight militancy, or they can fight India.

By yielding to Indian wishes, the US is merely forcing Pakistan down the path of militancy. That is probably not the goal it had in mind, but by giving India the free run of Afghanistan, it is ensuring that Pakistan is encircled. It is inevitable that it will seek allies elsewhere. So why not proceed with an old relationship that has given positive results, even if that upsets the plans of a not-so-reliable ally? However, that does not mean that power will not try to disrupt the relationship, just as the US is doing. Pakistani decision-makers need to ask themselves how long the country is supposed to chase after ‘great powers’, declining or otherwise.

n    The writer is a veteran journalist

    and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.