By Misbah U. Azam, Ph.D.
Well known public intellectual, political analyst and TV anchor person, Mr. Farrukh Khan Pitafi once told me that years ago while he was interviewing Dr. Stephen P. Cohen — a famous American political scientist, a prominent expert on Pakistan, India, and South Asian security and senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution – he asked Dr. Cohen if there is any example in the world in his knowledge where the cordial relations between the states are not entirely base on the mutual interests. Dr. Cohen replied that in his recollection, China-Pakistan relations can be described as the states’ relations which are somewhat above their personal interests.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Islamabad is largely focused on broadening deep economic relations and military leadership in Pakistan will also brief President Xi on the progress in counter-militancy operations and efforts to promote peace in neighboring Afghanistan. China’s pledge of around US $45 billion of investment in development projects not only gain headlines in Pakistan media but the international media also highlighted it and argued that those development plans are only half of a strategy aimed at simultaneously improving the region’s security issues along with its economy. The New York Times highlighted the high profiled visit of Chinese leader to Pakistan and commented on the future of US-Pakistan relations. Times noted, “…laden with tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure and energy assistance on a scale the United States has never offered in the past decade of a close relationship, a gesture likely to confirm the decline of American influence in that nation”. Times also focused on the fact that “significant amount of assistance, including a port facility at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, and rails and roads leading from the port across Baluchistan Province and into western China, will be in areas close to the tribal areas where the militant groups operate. The route from Gwadar to Kashgar, in Xinjiang — a project officially called the Economic Corridor — also serves as a short cut for the shipment of goods from Europe to China, avoiding the Strait of Malacca farther east”.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a plan worth $46 billion, is launched on Monday, April 20, 2015, is not only linking the economy of Pakistan to an economic giant but it also accentuates China’s economic ambitions and security concerns in Asia and beyond. Geographically, it is a 1,250-mile (2,000-kilometer) road and rail link connecting Kashgar, in the Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, to Pakistan’s South-western port of Gawadar. Economically, it consists of cooperation in financing, investment, measures on energy which covers coal power plants, hydroelectric, wind-generated power, solar power stations and supplies of coal. Chinese and Pakistani officials insist that the plan is expected to assist some of among the most under developed areas of Pakistan and China by reducing poverty and generating employments.
The pronounced benefit of China with CPEC is that it reduces transportation time of goods and energy from the oil rich Persian Gulf. Transportation from the Middle East, via the Strait of Malacca takes about 45 days at present, which could be reduced to less than 10 days only, if it will be done through Gwadar port. Another benefit China sees in investing in Pakistan is that after the CPEC will be operational, it will initiate more economical activities in the North-western Xingjian province which is for years tarnished by the separatist movements.
For three decades the export based economy of China grew almost at 10% rate but for last couple of years the growth rate has declined. This year it will be around 7%. Investing in infra-structure and energy sectors in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Middle East and Africa, will help reducing unemployment and stabilize the growth. However, for China there are more benefits then what are described above. In a broader view, the CPEC will not only closely connect Central Asia, West Asia, and Gulf States through economic and energy cooperation but also it will address some of the China’s crucial but excruciating security concerns as well which will be discussed here with some detail.
At the eve of President Xi Jinping’s visit of Pakistan, the CBS News quoted some Western diplomats saying that China’s increasing economic engagement with Pakistan should be seen in the context of Beijing’s “efforts to counter the US efforts to deepen alliances around the Asia-Pacific region”. The 2012 regional strategy of President Obama’s administration – The Pivot to East Asia — predominantly emphasizes the “strengthening bilateral security alliances; deepening working relationships with emerging powers, including China; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights”. However, China sees the Pivot to East Asia strategy as a part of America’s policy to contain and confine the military power and economic expansion of China. Proponents of this theory in China’s ruling circle believe that United States needs a militarily, economically and socially weak and divided China so that US can continue its martial hegemony in Asia and Africa.
Territorial disputes over the handful of islands of the East and South China Sea have already thrashed relations between China and countries like Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei in recent years. The South China Sea region is the area that is home to a wealth of natural resources, fisheries, trade routes, and military bases. The Ministry of Geological Resources and Mining of the People’s Republic of China estimates that the South China Sea contains 17.7 billion tons of crude oil (compared to Kuwait which has some 13 billion tons of crude oil reserves), although, other sources claim that the reserves of oil in the South China Sea may only be about 1.1 billion tons. All of this is at stake in the increasingly frequent diplomatic stand-offs among the countries of the region. Some analysts in Asia and Europe believe that the Obama’s announced “Pivot in East Asia” policy further raised tensions in the already scorching region.
About a quarter of oil supplies, mainly from Persian Gulf suppliers, which goes to South Korea, Japan and China, carried by sea, has to pass through the 1.5 nautical mile wide Strait of Malacca. According to one media report, more than half China’s oil supply comes from the Malacca strait.
With the changing geopolitical realities and formation of new allegedly hostile alliances, China has fears that if the dispute in the East and South China Sea is aggravated and such alliance is ever materialized, it may have a potential to impose a naval blockade on the narrow Malacca strait and strangle China economically. China believes that it must pre-empt the situation and form its own alliances to counter the possible hostility against China.
Significant number of Chinese believe that allowing Taiwan independence is simply a signing its own death warrant. They insist if ever in the future Taiwan would try to become a separate entity, China will have no choice but to launch a massive military action. This fear is not very far-fetched. During my days as Ph. D. student at Arizona State University, I had some friends from Taiwan who were the student leaders and activists for Taiwan’s independence. They used to invite me to their monthly forum where they also invite some intellectuals and experts on Taiwan history and politics. One day, one of the expert who was a well established Dentist, insisted, while talking to me, that although Taiwanese are Mandarin speakers but they are actually closer to Japanese then Chinese. Chinese rightly believe that if Taiwan will ever become independent, it will be heavily influenced and controlled by Japan. The relationship between China and Japan has been strained at times by Japan’s refusal to acknowledge its wartime past to the satisfaction of China (According to a 2014 BBC World Service Poll, just 5% of Chinese people view Japanese influence positively, with 90% expressing a negative view, the most negative perception of Japan in the world). The independent Taiwan and Japan with help of Philippines and Vietnam can assert their influence on Chinese interests in East and South China Sea and can suffocate China economically by depriving China from its right of the wealth of sea and trade corridors.
Helping Pakistan in building the infra-structure is strongly attached to China own interest and the first step to counter such possibilities. One can observe the location of Pakistan is like a channel which connects Northwestern China and take it to the warm waters of Arabian Sea, which is a gateway to the oil rich Persian Gulf. With Pakistan politically, militarily and economically stable, with strongly allied to China, the alleged “China Containment Policy” loses its significance because China will continue influencing Asia and Africa militarily and economically through Pakistan.
China is facing this situation for some decades, but such huge investment came after lots of painstaking efforts by the Pakistani leadership. Although, the credit for building such close relation with China goes to a long list of civilian and military leaders. However, looking at past decades, President Syed Asif Ali Zardari, Chief Minister Punjab Mian Shahbaz Sharif and General Raheel Sharif should be given most of the credit to rebuild this relation. In Feb. 2013, President Zardari handed over the contract of operation of Gwadar port to China after the agreement was transferred from the Port of Singapore Authority to China Overseas Ports Holding Company Limited. This action brought a huge positive shift in Sino-Pakistan relationship. Shahbaz Sharif also involved China in numerous development projects in Punjab and worked very closely with Chinese business. Unlike the “thinking” General Ashfaq Pervez Kyani, General Sharif has proven to be a professional soldier and competent war time commander. General Sharif, not only stood up against the abhorrent anti-democracy movement — which was also influenced by Gen. Sisi’s anti-democracy actions — led by Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan but also, he launched a decisive military operation against the terrorists in the tribal belt and stood behind the Pakistan Rangers’ operations inside Pakistan settled area.
In coming days, the overall geopolitical situation of the region has potential to change significantly. China’s expansion in the Indian Ocean, Mid East and in Africa will be the matter of concern for the West. Pakistan seems to be leaning more towards east while India’s tilt will be increasing more towards west. The Times of India reported this month that Pakistan and Russia have agreed to hold first-ever joint military exercises as part of their enhanced defence cooperation, which is indeed a sign of increasing closeness between the Cold War-era adversaries. Pakistan’s virtual refusal to dispatch combat soldiers to Yemen quagmire and its implicit snub to its old ally Saudi Arabia demonstrates maturity in the civil/military leadership and its self-confidence and understanding about the changing realities of the region. With the operation Zarb-e-Azb, now the civilian and military leadership can face their Chinese counterparts who have serious concerns about the growing terrorism inside Pakistan borders which was spreading to China’s Xinjiang province. Now this is an opportunity for Pakistan government to exploit this ground reality and channel all the benefits to common people who are the actual stakeholders of these relations. It is the duty of Pakistani civilian leadership to work even harder to bring Baloch insurgents to the peace table and take actions on their genuine and rightful demands. In tribal belt, those who agree to surrender and want to join the state, must be engaged and allowed to live their lives in peace as long as they pledge not to join militant groups to infiltrate in other neighbors. Pakistan must make every effort to reduce tension with India, Iran and Afghanistan which are – besides China – are most important countries for Pakistan’s security and flourishing economy in the future. Although it is true that the growing bonhomie between India and West makes Indian leadership and security establishment over confident and they are trying to exploit this love affair to inflict maximum diplomatic damage to Pakistan but Pakistan should keep its house in order. Last but not least, Pakistan should work with every country but make sure – at one hand — not to become the crony of some small rich or big powers who would want to use Pakistan to fulfill their imperial ambitions and – at the other hand – Pakistan should not damage its relationship with its old allies and trade partners in Asia, America and Europe.