The killing of 24 Pakistani troops by NATO forces last Saturday is just the latest disastrous chapter in U.S.- Pakistan relations. As affairs go from bad to catastrophic, it’s not just the Taliban who will benefit but also China.

For several years now the Pakistanis have found China a very willing and increasingly powerful counterweight to the Americans and their often strident political demands.

Toeing Washington’s line, in other words, is no longer the only option. And the pragmatic Chinese, as always, seem willing to work with whoever holds power.

Every crisis in American-Pakistani relations is a golden opportunity for China.

Take, for instance, the outrage in both the U.S. and Pakistan after American troops secretly entered Pakistan on May 2 to kill Osama bin Laden. The day after the killing, as American officials in Washington intimated that top duplicitous Pakistani military had been harboring the al-Qaida leader, and fulminating U.S. congressmen were demanding immediate cuts in aid, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Beijing leapt to Pakistan’s defense. He declared that “the Pakistani government is firm in resolve and strong in action when it comes to counterterrorism — and has made important contributions to the international counterterrorism efforts.” America should respect Pakistan’s sovereignty, the Chinese said.

As U.S.-Pakistan relations continued to curdle, the Chinese and Pakistanis only tightened their embrace. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, on an official visit to China, told Chinese state radio, “We appreciate that in all difficult circumstances China stood with Pakistan — therefore we call China a true friend and a time-tested and all-weather friend.”

During that trip, China’s premier proved his friendship by announcing that China would, without charge, supply Pakistan with 50 JF-17 fighter jets equipped with sophisticated avionics.

Pakistan’s nuclear program provides another example of China’s opportunism. The U.S., very upset by Pakistan’s clandestine development of nuclear weapons, had been looking at Pakistan’s program with a baleful eye. Not the Chinese, who raised hackles in Washington when they sold the Pakistanis two new nuclear reactors, supposedly to be used only for civilian purposes. The deal, the Chinese insisted, was peaceful. (The Pakistanis are quick to point out that the U.S. has been much more willing to forgive archrival India for also developing nukes.)

In fact, for years now China has been the major supplier of military hardware to Pakistan. The two countries also have arms manufacturing co-production deals and carry out joint military exercises.

But Pakistan and China’s close relationship extends beyond weaponry. While the U.S. has spent billions on military bases in the Persian Gulf, the Chinese have been funding a sophisticated deep-water commercial port in Gwadar, Pakistan, near the Persian Gulf. Just as important, they’re also rehabilitating a 1,300-kilometer-long highway to connect Gwadar to China through Pakistan. You may never have heard of Gwadar, but you will in the future. “Come back in a decade and this place will look like Dubai,” a developer recently said.

Trade between China and Pakistan has soared from $2 billion in 2002 to $7 billion in 2009. After a flurry of new agreements, the two countries are hoping to hit $18 billion by 2015. Those agreements target everything from agriculture to heavy machinery, to space and upper atmosphere research, alternative energy projects, power plants and urban security.

The Chinese are also aiming to increase investment in Pakistan from the present $2 billion a year to more than $3 billion a year by 2012. That’s double the annual $1.5 billion in economic assistance from the United States that supposedly has kept the Pakistani military in line all these years.

Indeed, since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has provided Pakistan with some $20 billion in aid, mostly military — in effect payoffs for Pakistan’s cooperation in fighting terrorism. But that aid has done little to prevent the disastrous decline in relations between the two countries.

China and Pakistan have more interests in common than do America and Pakistan. Looking to the future, powerful elements in Pakistan’s military have long viewed America’s enemies in Afghanistan, the Taliban, as valuable allies against India when America inevitably pulls out of the war. China, like Pakistan, also regards India as a regional rival to be harassed and thwarted.

By working together, China and Pakistan will be able to challenge not just India, but also the United States and its claims to hegemony in the area. This goal has grown more pressing since President Obama announced that 2,500 U.S. Marines would be stationed in Australia as part of America’s determination to increase its presence in the Pacific.

China’s swollen coffers now also enable it to use foreign aid in the way that America did in plushier days. After the disastrous floods in Pakistan in summer 2010, for instance, China announced its biggest-ever humanitarian aid program including $250 million in donations. It also included a $400 million loan to help Pakistan tackle the financial impact of the flooding, and a cash grant of $10 million toward a fund to compensate people rendered homeless.

As part of this new hearts-and-minds policy, the Chinese offered 500 university scholarships over the next three years for Pakistani students, with programs focusing on technological areas of expertise not taught in Pakistan. The two countries will also exchange high school students, young entrepreneurs and voluntary social workers. Meanwhile, Chinese surgeons are being dispatched to Pakistan to perform cataract operations on 1,000 blind patients.

Such efforts are obviously paying off. It turns out the Pakistanis are now also proselytizing for the Chinese. According to The New York Times in a report earlier this year:

At a landmark meeting on April 16 in the Afghan capital, Kabul, top Pakistani officials suggested to Afghan leaders that they, too, needed to look to China, an ascendant power, rather than align themselves closely with the United States, according to Afghan officials.

“You couldn’t tell exactly what they meant, whether China could possibly be an alternative to the United States, but they were saying it could help both countries,” an Afghan official said afterward.

And all that was before this last catastrophic weekend.

Barry M. Lando spent 25 years as an award-winning investigative producer with “60 Minutes.” He has produced numerous articles, a documentary and a book, “Web of Deceit,” about Iraq. Lando is just finishing a novel, “The Watchman’s File.”

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