ISLAMABAD, Pakistan-At breakfast at my hotel I was having trouble with the cornflake dispenser. It was one of those tall cylindrical containers with a lever at the bottom that needed to be turned for the cornflakes to tumble out, only the lever was stuck. I gave up in frustration and almost walked into a young woman who'd been observing my dismal efforts.
"Dui Bu Qui," (excuse me), she said, addressing me in Mandarin, before simply opening the top of the container and ladling out her cornflakes.
She then returned to a table of what looked to me like Chinese businessmen. She was by far the smartest-dressed at the table, the translator I assumed, while the men-ruddy faced, a bit rough around the edges, and looking a little uncomfortable in dark suits and ties-were fairly typical of the traders or small town entrepreneurs I'm more familiar with on trips to provincial China.
I looked further around the restaurant. There were several more tables of what looked to me like Chinese businessmen, while at the back, more discretely seated, was a more polished group, Chinese diplomats or bankers perhaps, pouring over some documents. (Possibly the latest photos of the American stealth helicopter downed in the Osama bin Laden raid, one colleague mischievously suggested. The Chinese military is allegedly anxious to get a look at the plans for the sophisticated chopper that was capable of evading radar detection).
The reason I mention this is because this restaurant, in one of Islamabad's best and most secure hotels, has always been an anthropologists dream.
At any one time the scene provides a wonderful insight into what's going on, who's up and who's down in turbulent Pakistan. Journalists, diplomats, business people and spooks rub shoulders around the buffet table with Pakistani government officials and bearded frontier tribesmen in flowing robes.
On a recent morning, there were several tattooed Western men with shaven heads and bull-necks, some sort of security for one of the aforementioned I assumed, for whom "low-key" was clearly not part of the training.
China, Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friend’
It’s been like this over the many years I've been coming to Pakistan, and staying at this hotel, but I've never seen so many Chinese at the breakfast buffet.
One look at the newspapers lying around the restaurant, and it’s easy to see why the Chinese are so welcome here.
"China urges US to respect Pak sovereignty," headlined Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper Thursday. While the Express Tribune declared: "China endorses Pakistan's response to US raid."
There has been much Pakistani praise of their "all-weather friend" in Beijing.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani has been in Beijing this week and just clinched a deal in which China will provide Pakistan with 50 fighter jets to the tune of $20-25 million a pop.
The visit was organized some time back, but China has sought to maximize its diplomatic advantage following Pakistan's humiliation over the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and the subsequent crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations.
"China and Pakistan will remain forever good neighbors, good friends, good partners and good brothers," according to the Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, quoted approvingly in newspapers here.
The authorities in Punjab Province have even declared they will no longer accept aid from the U.S., but only from friends who do no attach strings, read China.
Of course China and Pakistan have long been close, with Beijing allegedly helping in the development of Pakistan's nuclear weapon program, but it has only been more recently that the economic relationship has really taken off. China is pouring cash into Pakistan's infrastructure and natural resources, and in a December visit the Chinese prime minister announced billions of dollars of proposed investments.
No wonder the crowds around that buffet are looking increasingly Chinese.
Western diplomats, watching from their corner of the restaurant, seemed remarkably relaxed about the budding friendship between the two regional neighbors.
Whatever diplomatic advantage it may be seeking this week, China has welcomed the death of Bin Laden, and has every reason itself to be concerned about Islamic militancy across the mountains from its own Muslim areas. Western diplomats believe its private message to Gilani is likely to have been very different from the public platitudes.
And Chinese economic assistance can be double-edged.
Investment is primarily motivated by China's hunger for raw materials, and it is frequently accompanied by Chinese labor. Trade between the two countries is also heavily skewed in China's favor. Pakistani manufacturers cannot compete with the cheap Chinese goods flooding Pakistan's markets, leading traders to frequently grumble about quality.
Back at the breakfast buffet, the young woman who I'd (almost) bumped into at the cornflake dispenser, rose to leave with her entourage. She and a colleague carried between them a heavy bag that appeared to contain two Chinese tea sets – gifts, I assumed, for their would-be business partners in a country that for the moment needs every friend it can get.
Yes, go to China. They make great friends with their neighbors. Just ask all those provinces that were once independent countries....
Indeed. Pakistan is but a pawn in China's "contest" with India.
What will a future of this region look like when China must see to it's stability. I wouldn't want to be there to see it.