This is the first time that Pakistan does not have an ambassador in Beijing for several months now, which is an oddity. Washington and London were the first capitals where the Gilani government appointed ambassadors. That is supposedly understandable. The current government in Pakistan was possible only because of a political understanding – widely referred to in Islamabad as a "deal" – which both capitals brokered with a weak and fading Mr Musharraf.
But how China has slipped from the list of priorities of the Gilani government can be gauged from our expected participation this week in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit on Aug 28. This is a Chinese- and Russian- dominated organisation seen as a counterweight to US influence in our region. In this first major foreign policy engagement for this government involving China, no senior politician from the Gilani administration will be representing Pakistan. Prime Minister Gilani has decided that, due to our pressing internal political situation, the advisor to the prime minister for national security – a former ambassador to Washington – will instead represent Islamabad. This will be the lowest Pakistani participation in the SCO since its formation in 2001. It is true that Pakistan is still not a full member of the SCO. But Beijing is strongly advocating full membership for Islamabad and Moscow is more favourably inclined to go along than at any other time before, putting aside Indian sensitivities.
Given how we are suffering from Washington's destabilising influence in our neighbourhood, you would think we would have shown more enthusiasm for this week's SCO summit. But this is not the case. What is interesting is that this attitude comes at the heel of several events in the past four months that have generated some concern among Pakistani Sinologists. This is a concern that has not turned to panic, not yet at least.
A couple of months ago, Dr Shireen Mazari, a former head of a think-tank funded by our Foreign Office, reported that our top diplomats received verbal "guidance" from a well known Washington-based figure in the Gilani government to stop focusing too much on China and start a new policy of engagement with countries such as India and the United States. This could be a personal opinion or a general policy observation, and all elected governments have the right to review policies. But in China's case, we have accumulated several bad examples recently that the subject merits a special discussion.
In April, Prime Minister Gilani avoided attending the Olympic torch relay ceremony as the torch passed through Islamabad, on the pretext that President Musharraf was also attending. Considering how Western members of the International Olympic Committee refused to include Pakistan in the Olympic torch route and how Beijing stuck to Islamabad, the April 16 incident in the Pakistani capital was certainly a ghastly show of lopsided priorities. And then on Aug. 8, Pakistan's participation at the level of president in China's most important event of the century was scuttled because of Pakistani politics. One can be certain that our Chinese friends were not very impressed when we sent to Beijing a prime minister widely seen as "remote-controlled" – as opposed to a "puppet" – and the teenage chairman of the ruling party. It didn't quite give the impression that we attached a lot of importance to an important event for China. Overall, it would be an understatement to say that this has not been a good year so far for Sino-Pakistani ties.
The principals of the Gilani government must excuse the sceptics when things like this happen. After all, the government has shown a lot of enthusiasm in focusing on ties with the United States. Washington was the first real foreign engagement for Prime Minister Gilani. You can discount the Saudi visit. That was limited to a one-point agenda: cheap oil. Certainly the government has shown a lot of interest in hiring the services of an "American enthusiast" to be our ambassador in Washington, followed by appointing the last serving ambassador there as the new national security advisor to the prime minister. This is a government tinged with a heavy American dose. That is fine, since this is an important relationship for Islamabad. But in the process, China should not be sidelined.