In the thunderous speeches to Pakistan's parliament about the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Prime Minister's spirited defence of his administration and the opposition's fiery attacks, all sides agreed on one point: Pakistan's new best friend is China. That is the angry message that Pakistani politicians wanted their American allies to hear, at least, when they applauded and banged their desks at every mention of the word "China" in Parliament House.
The United States inflicted deep embarrassment with the unilateral raid on Mr. bin Laden's hideout, and the discomfort continues as Washington pushes for answers about Islamabad's role in concealing the world's most-wanted terrorist in a garrison town. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani answered with a 30-minute speech to parliament, denying any collusion with terrorists, warning of retaliation against future breaches of sovereignty, and promising an investigation. He said his government can still work productively with the United States, on which Pakistan depends for at least $4-billion a year in assistance.
When listing Pakistan's allies, however, Mr. Gilani made a point of starting with effusive praise for his country's northern neighbour. China does not give Pakistan as much help, but does offer nuclear co-operation. And what China demands in return, such as mineral wealth and sea port access, has never caused the sort of uproar that still grips Islamabad in the wake of Mr. bin Laden's death.
"We are delighted that our all-weather friend, the People's Republic of China, has made tremendous strides in economic and technological development that are a source of inspiration and strength for the people of Pakistan," Mr. Gilani said.
The reference to the "all-weather" nature of China's relationship with Pakistan was an implicit criticism of American presence in this region, surging at times of peak interest, such as the 1980s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and waning as U.S. attention drifts away. Some commentators in Pakistan fear that such a moment may have arrived again, with Mr. bin Laden's death and the impending start of U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.
Mr. Gilani drew heavily on U.S. history in Afghanistan when explaining Mr. bin Laden's presence in his country, saying that Pakistan was employed as an incubator for groups that fought the Russians and later turned to global terrorism.
"We did not invite Osama bin Laden to Pakistan," Mr. Gilani said, repeating the phrase twice in his speech. He added: "Allegations of complicity or incompetence are absurd."
Opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan ridiculed the Prime Minister, saying his speech had been scripted by "foreign masters," and describing the U.S. raid as a breach of sovereignty that dishonoured Pakistan. He compared the current political situation to the crisis of 1971, when a disastrous war resulted in the secession of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.
"We were in trouble then, and we're in trouble now," Mr. Khan said. "We were isolated then, and we're isolated now."
China was among the only countries in the world that stood up for Pakistan during the onslaught of suspicions and innuendo that followed Mr. bin Laden's death, issuing a statement the following day that unequivocally praised Islamabad's record of fighting terrorism.
Even amid the current crisis, on a day when he reshuffled his cabinet to shore up his coalition in parliament, Mr. Gilani paused on Sunday to cut cake with the Chinese ambassador in honour of the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Such gestures are aimed more at provoking the United States than shifting Pakistan's strategic relationships, said Sohail Warraich, a popular television host and author.
"These are hollow things," Mr. Warraich said. "It's just political sloganeering."
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