Another meaningless Pakistani election has attracted another burst of world media attention. Last week, voters gave the party of former cricket player Imran Khan a plurality in Parliament, making him the likely next prime minister. The press is full of accounts of what Mr. Khan’s victory means for the troubled country. But the real decisions in Pakistan are made by unelected military officers—and the media’s dutiful coverage of the nation’s all but ceremonial electoral process is a major propaganda victory for the permanent ruling establishment.
Pakistan matters, even if its elections don’t. It is the world’s only nuclear state with deep ties to terror groups. And its national-security elite believes it is locked in an existential competition with India, its much larger, richer and more technologically advanced southern neighbor. Yet Pakistan simply does not have the economic capacity to keep up this security competition. That has been true since the partition in 1947, and it became more pronounced when India helped East Pakistan emerge as independent Bangladesh in 1971.
Pakistan’s security disadvantage has always had a profound impact on its politics. The imbalance has driven Pakistan’s concentration of power in the hands of the military, its quest for nuclear weapons to counteract India’s edge in conventional warfare, its dependence on patrons and paymasters to bridge the resource gap, and its deepening reliance on Islam as a legitimating force.
There is little room for actual democracy under these circumstances, or so Pakistan’s rulers believe. But they have come to understand the advantages of a democratic charade. The blame for problems with public services like sewers, roads and schools—often exacerbated by the resource constraints imposed by the military’s security fixation—can be shifted onto politicians. When political parties become enmeshed in corruption scandals, the military presents itself as the clean and patriotic alternative, siding with the people against a crooked elite. The political pageantry currently being indulged by the press diverts attention from the hard fact of military rule without endangering the national-security establishment’s position at the heart of the state. Even controversies over the fairness of the election process contribute to the effectiveness of the dictatorship’s disguise.
Not that electoral competition in Pakistan is entirely without consequences. Politicians who win elections don’t gain power over the strategic direction of the state, but they do win government jobs and lucrative contracts for family and friends, along with other rewards and emoluments of office. The rival clans and ethnic groups who back Pakistan’s political parties sincerely want their side to win. Favored access to the governmental piggy bank is no small thing, and collaborating in a sham process that keeps the military in power is a small price to pay.
The most important story in Pakistan today is not the elevation of Mr. Khan, the military’s preferred candidate. It is that the U.S., Pakistan’s principal ally during both the Cold War and the war on terror, is no longer interested in subsidizing a partner it needs and trusts less and less. Pakistan’s military rulers are therefore seeking a new patron, and China is eager to fill the void.
Beijing is attracted to Pakistan for many reasons. Geographically, Pakistan is a corridor to the Middle East, making it an important theater for China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. Economically, Pakistan’s need for infrastructure investment and its large domestic market offer significant opportunities for Chinese business. Politically, China has a severe shortage of allies relative to the U.S.; a strong relationship with Pakistan would enhance its position.
But Pakistan is a problematic ally. Will the country that backed terror groups in Afghanistan and sheltered Osama bin Laden be as faithless to Beijing as it was to Washington? If China embraces Pakistan too closely, will that drive the more powerful country of India more tightly into America’s embrace?
Meanwhile, Pakistan needs massive loans to stay afloat. There already is talk that Pakistan will turn to the International Monetary Fund for a $10 billion to $12 billion loan next year. Chinese loans connected to the One Belt, One Road initiative often come with tight strings and preconditions; the amount of financial slack that China cuts Pakistan will be an early sign of where the relationship is headed.
Pakistan’s generals hope China will be an all-weather friend, subsidizing Pakistan’s economy indefinitely, backing it against India, and overlooking the security establishment’s deep ties to radical Islamists. Mr. Khan will faithfully support Pakistan’s new direction and perpetuate the pretense that Pakistani civilian politicians have real power.
As the priorities of the U.S. change, an Islamabad-Beijing relationship is taking shape. More than anything that Pakistan’s impotent civilian politicians say or do, that relationship between Pakistan’s military rulers and China’s Communist Party will determine the future of one of the most dangerous countries and regions in the world.