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Saudis, Paks, Chinese Huddle: Should Washington Worry?

From the Express Tribune, an English language newspaper published in Pakistan which has a relationship with the NY Times-owned International Herald Tribune:

Saudi, Chinese and Pakistani intelligence officials to meet in Islamabad

A trilateral meeting between intelligence officials from Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan will held in Islamabad today, Express 24/7 reported.

The trilateral meeting between officials will focus on United States (US) allegations against Pakistan and the future course of action in this regard.

Earlier, Director-general (DG) ISI Lt General Ahmad Shuja Pasha met Saudi officials at Chaklala base.

Sources said Saudi officials had conveyed a positive signal of considerable support to ISI officials during the meeting.

The meeting comes during a visit by China’s Vice Premier Meng Jianzhou to Pakistan, a visit which Pakistanis hope will help them resist pressure from Washington on the ISI’s relationship with the Haqqani network and remind the Americans that Pakistan has other friends.

Both the Saudis and the Chinese have deep ties with Pakistan.  The Chinese see Pakistan as a potential ally in any future US-India-Japan matchup against China, and the Saudis value Pakistan as a regional ally against Iran.  The Saudis sympathize more with Pakistan’s Sunni-chauvinist side in ways that no other power on earth does; Saudi Arabia has a softer spot in its heart for Taliban type movements than most and the plight of Kashmir also gets Saudi attention.  Saudi money is widely believed to bankroll many important Pakistani politicians.

The interests of Pakistan’s two best friends are not always easy to reconcile, however.  The Saudis generally believe — despite deep unhappiness with what some Saudis see as the irresolute and capricious nature of US foreign policy at the moment — that the US is their best shield against Iran, the power they fear above all others.  The Chinese on the other hand hope to use turmoil in the Middle East as a way of reducing America’s global position and they hate and fear the Islamic radicalism and terrorism that Pakistan supports.

Given these differences in perspective, the three way meetings in Islamabad, along with the Chinese visit, look more like bluffs than like real plays.  It’s impossible to know for sure, absent much more effective electronic listening devices than Via Meadia currently possesses, what is being said behind those closed doors, but China and Saudi Arabia seem both more likely to urge Pakistan toward cautious courses than to egg it on at present.

In the long term, the Saudis want to keep the door open to China — both as an important customer and as a potential great power player in the Middle East should the US position wane.  (It is likely that the Saudis are currently overestimating the likelihood that US decline and Chinese ascension will reshape global geopolitics.)  But for the time being, neither the Chinese nor the Saudis are ready for dramatic changes — and the issue of Iran continues to divide them.  Quiet support for Iran is part of China’s US-containment policy, while Iran looks like an existential threat in Riyadh.

Washington should watch meetings like this carefully, and presumably it is, but at the moment this all looks to be more about show than about substance.  The US media, on the other hand, need to do a much better job of monitoring the increasingly complex diplomatic dance where Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East meet in the most explosive place on the planet.

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  • Luke Lea

    I say let China and the Saudis have Pakistan. By all means be our guests!

  • Gene

    China and Saudi Arabia, please, please, PLEASE build close friendships with Pakistan. Having Pakistan as a friend is far more dangerous to your own well-being than almost any enemy could be.

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