Pakistan at the centre of complicated diplomacy

China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US all have interests to promote and protect in a region mired in complex issues - and the stakes are high.

ISLAMABAD // A recent flurry of high-profile, often edgy diplomatic exchanges among Pakistan and Afghanistan, China, India and the United States, has shown Pakistan to be at the epicentre of a geopolitical fault-line, but with precious little leverage.

The pace of diplomacy has been frenetic over the past two months. Pakistan's army chief, Gen Pervez Kayani, visited Kabul in June to press Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, to accept dialogue, without precondition, with Afghan militant factions, notably the Haqqani network, fighting US-led Nato forces. Relations between Afghan militants and the Pakistani military, which dominates foreign and defence policy-making in Islamabad, remain a major source of tension with the US.

There has been a noticeable shift in the US position, indicating a reluctant acceptance to allow Pakistan to play its Afghan cards in the vague hope that it might be able to engineer a terminal split between Afghan and al Qa'eda militants based in tribal regions bordering eastern Afghanistan. However, US involvement in Afghanistan is just a sideshow in the theatre of South Asian geopolitics, as far as the Pakistani military is concerned.

Top billing is, instead, given to the role of India, with which Pakistan has fought three wars since it gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Having come excruciatingly close to striking a deal with India over the disputed Kashmir region in 2006, when Pervez Musharraf held the offices of president and army chief, Pakistan has reverted to a hawkish stance since Mr Kayani took over the military reins in November 2007.

Ostensibly, the involvement of Pakistani militants in the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai is the root cause of the deterioration in relations between the neighbours, which conducted tit-for-tat nuclear weapons tests in May 1998. Another has been the growing role of India in Afghanistan, including its proposed training of the Afghan army, which by early 2009 had convinced the Pakistani defence establishment that the US was complicit in creating a second unfriendly border on its north-west flank.

Relations between Islamabad and Washington deteriorated markedly as a result during 2009, and it was only a more urgent need for the Pakistani military's cooperation in Afghanistan that pushed the US back toward it, and to persuade India to reduce its profile in Afghanistan. However, further friction is inevitable because of the development of a close strategic partnership between the US and India since the 1998 nuclear tests, and the acceptance of the relegated regional status that entails for Pakistan, particularly its military.

Talks between Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the Pakistani foreign minister, and SM Krishna, his Indian counterpart, in Islamabad on July 11 were thus notable only for the frosty tone of their joint news conference and the lack of a joint communiqué. The parity of power with India sought by the Pakistani military ignores the miserable state of its economy, which survives on aid from the US and US-based multilateral financial institutions, and leaves it susceptible to US carrot-and-stick diplomacy.

Pakistan's fallback is China, which shares a deep suspicion of the US-India partnership, but it also wants to engage India to counteract American influence. It was no coincidence that Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, paid a five-day trip to China up to July 11 ahead of talks with the Indian and US foreign ministers, and shortly after a meeting in June of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, where China rebuffed US-led calls for a clarification on a deal to supply additional nuclear power reactors to Pakistan.

It was a quid pro quo for the group's decision in 2008 to grant an exemption to the US to supply India with nuclear power technology, despite fierce opposition from China. Mr Zardari returned with a commitment from Beijing to finance a major new dam and new highways, and a railway line linking the two countries, in Gilgit-Baltistan, a region of disputed Kashmir and, therefore, a diplomatic poke to India.

Relations between China and India have been tense since the 2008 approval of World Bank funding of development projects in Arunachel Pradesh, a northern Indian state that China claims as part of Tibet, and over which the two countries fought a 1962 war. However, ties have otherwise vastly improved since their 1996 diplomatic rapprochement, and the Indian government decided in March not to avail of the World Bank funding, and in June held discussions in Beijing on the resumption of joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean later this year.

The China-India relationship exemplifies a diplomatic arena in which relationships are constructively schizophrenic, and far less combustible. Pakistan is becoming increasingly accustomed to advice from Beijing - don't provoke India, deny safe havens to al Qa'eda, focus on your economy and governance - which echoes that coming from Washington. It also reflects closer diplomatic coordination, particularly in Asia, that has been noticeable since Barack Obama, the US president, visited China in November 2009.

All Pakistan may get out of it is the promise of non-aggression from India and help to stop its economy from imploding. Its hawkish military could swallow it at the price of international recognition of Pakistan as a nuclear weapons state, as demanded by Gen Tariq Majeed, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a speech in Islamabad in June. But the red-handed capture in December 2003 of an illegal Pakistani nuclear proliferation network means that carrot is not on the menu - even if Gen Kayani could serve up Osama bin Laden on a platter.