Editor's note: Patrick M. Cronin is senior adviser and senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington.
Washington (CNN) -- The strategic partnership between the United States and Pakistan appears once again to be careening toward the brink of self-destruction. Reports that Pakistan may have given Chinese engineers direct access to the remnants of an U.S. Black Hawk stealth helicopter left behind in the May raid on Osama bin Laden, are the latest in a series of blows to the relationship.
Although Pakistani-U.S. ties have risen and fallen over the decades, Presidents George W. Bush in 2001 and Barack Obama in 2009 thought they had a strategic understanding with Pakistan's top leaders. They appear to have been wrong.
Unfortunately, strategies for tamping down terrorism and insurgency continue to diverge, as suggested by stories about who gave Bin Laden sanctuary, Pakistan touting China as "its best friend," and accusations regarding Pakistani civilian casualties of America's drone campaign and related operations.
The recent daylight kidnapping in the provincial capital of Punjab of a civilian contractor working for the U.S. Agency for International Development should remind all concerned how much risk is involved even when people are endeavoring to contribute to peace and prosperity in a regional zone of conflict. But what should be done when an ally sells out America's most sensitive secrets?
Of course, the first challenge is being certain about what is known and what is not. One thing we know is that sneaking a peek beneath the skirt of America's defense industry would rank high on China's list of intelligence collection priorities.
The Chinese government has an omnivorous appetite for U.S. high technology, especially sensitive military hardware and software. Access to a supersecret stealth helicopter that could evade Pakistani (and thus Chinese) airspace and sovereignty would be an extraordinary boon to the People's Liberation Army and China's state-owned military-industrial complex.
Ordinary Pakistanis were seen handling parts of the wreckage, and the United States should assume that any portion of the stealth helicopter not destroyed potentially fell into the hands of adversaries and competitors. Pakistani support for third-party technology transfer would be consistent with the well-documented and sordid trail of black market proliferation associated with nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.
But rather than rush to condemn Pakistan on the basis of incomplete information, the Obama administration needs to rethink its broader approach to Pakistan.
The United States appears to be dashing quickly in opposite directions. Simultaneously, Washington is giving Pakistan $1.5 billion a year in development assistance and then reportedly withholding military aid unless Pakistan's policy actions receive green lights on a secret scorecard. The former action treats Pakistan like a close ally in which we have a long-term investment; the latter condition presupposes Pakistani generals would cede strategic objectives for limited military hardware and support. The two are hard to reconcile.
As the Obama administration sits down once again to reassess its national interests and Pakistan's strategic goals, some fundamental questions need to be asked anew:
• First, does the United States seek narrow counterterrorism goals from Pakistan above all else, or is the relationship built on a broader foundation than that?
• Second, do the United States and Pakistan share basic strategic goals, both in general and specifically with regard to confronting radical extremism inside Pakistan and its neighbors?
• Finally, do the military and civilian leaders of both countries clearly understand what is expected of the other, and what is not acceptable?
We may never know for certain whether Pakistan deliberately released America's secret military hardware to China. But there is no mystery about the importance of clarity in U.S. and Pakistani relations, as the United States prepares to wind down in Afghanistan, and as Pakistan continues to build one of the world's largest nuclear programs. Henry Kissinger has said that America can neither withdraw from the world nor control the world; the same could be said for its relationship with Pakistan.
If any good can come from the possible transfer of U.S. stealth technology to China, it would be to help re-establish some equilibrium in relations with the Pakistan government.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patrick M. Cronin.