Saturday, May 21, 2011

Gilani's Visit to China: Further Consolidation of Ties?

Here's the link to an article of mine on Pakistan President Gilani's visit to China published by ORF.

The Chinese objectives are in perfect congruence with those of Pakistan. Pakistan is also mindful of the fact that an enhanced Chinese presence will keep India away (at least Pakistan is hopeful of), thereby ensuring Pakistan the strategic depth that it has been seeking to achieve in Afghanistan.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has just concluded his four-day visit to China - the "all weather friend" whose friendship he described as "taller than the Himalayas and deeper than oceans." Some have suggested that there are limits to China-Pakistan relationship and that Beijing may no more be willing to stick its head out for Islamabad. However, the statement from China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) does not suggest so; neither does the statement by the Chinese Foreign Minister who spoke at last week's US-China strategic dialogue and economic talks. He is reported to have said that "any attack on Pakistan would be construed as an attack on China" though this has been reported only in the Pakistani press and not been confirmed by any Chinese sources. While there is understandable scepticism about such strong assurances, the New York Times reported a signed commentary in the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, that "urged Americans to critically examine the unilateral nature of its raid and infringement of Pakistan's territorial rights."

When the whole world was critical of Pakistan's role in sheltering Osama Bin Laden, China extended full backing to Pakistan, saying Islamabad was a victim of terror and that the sacrifices that it had made in the global war against terror should not go unnoticed. The MOFA spokesperson Jiang Yu also noted that Beijing looks forward to "further consolidating and developing friendship and cooperation" as it is in the interests of both the countries to have a "stable" Pakistan.

The Pakistan-China relations are based on a bedrock of mutually beneficial strategic requirements. Both Pakistan and China have strong reasons for continuing these ties. Thus, there is little likelihood that these ties will wither in the near future.

There are several strategic interests that keep China involved in the AfPak region. Whether China has acknowledged it or not, India has been a significant factor in its South Asia policy. Beijing's foreign and security policies in respect to South Asia have been shaped with an objective to balance New Delhi in its own backyard. Of all the countries in South Asia, the interests of China and Pakistan coincide the most and that has been the foundation for this strong partnership.

While China may have had its calculations, Gilani's visit to Beijing at this juncture is not without strategic reasons from Pakistan's point of view. The visit comes at a critical time when its relations with the US and even India are yet again on a downward spiral. Additionally, a post-Osama situation throws open several important questions for South Asia in general and Pakistan, Afghanistan in particular. In the face of the harsh and rampant criticism, particularly from the US, Pakistan is trying to reach out to and consolidate its ties with "friends" - Russia and China - countries that are wary of the US and its presence in Asia.

In fact, by playing the Beijing card, Pakistan is sending an important message for the United States. In one of the first statements in the floor of the Parliament after the Osama killing, Prime Minister Gilani appreciated China's gesture as Pakistan's all-weather friend, which commended the Pakistani sacrifices in the war against terror. The Pakistani government is also trying to shore updomestic support by suggesting that even if the US were to punish or discard them, they have a reliable friend in China. In a rebuff to the US, Gilani is reported to have stated in an interview to the Xinhua news agency that "we are proud to have China as our best and most trusted friend and China will always find Pakistan standing beside it at all times."1

In addition, now that Osama is dead, the US could possibly look out for an early exit option, which would mean that Afghanistan will go back to the dark ages with Pakistan controlling the Taliban and the Taliban taking over Afghanistan. Along with Pakistan, China will make a quick entry into Afghanistan.

China's interests in Afghanistan are both strategic and resource-based. China's increasing role and influence in Kabul will be a factor that India will have to consider. Chinese policy towards Kabul will be driven by three objectives - rich mineral resources, strategic gateway to Central Asia (a region rich in resources) and the Xinjiang Uighur problem. Managing all the three successfully (in the typical Chinese way) dictate closer relationship with Pakistan and Afghanistan (and even Saudi Arabia).

China is already the largest investor in resource-rich Afghanistan. It already has a $3.5 billion investment in the Aynak copper mine project and Beijing plans to make additional investments in tapping the oil, gas and iron mine sectors in Afghanistan. Therefore, the Chinese interests in Afghanistan are long-term and the role of Pakistan in aiding those interests is critical.

Second, the role of Pakistan and Afghanistan in keeping the Uighur problem under wraps is equally important an imperative that drives the Chinese AfPak policy. At one level, China has been careful not to openly criticise the Pakistan-based terror groups that may bring about wrath of these groups in Xinjiang. At another level, China does not want a weakened Islamic country taken over by terror groups that may fuel trouble among the Uighurs in the Xinjiang Province.

A third strategic imperative that dictates the Chinese AfPak policy is the potential for Pakistan and Afghanistan to become gateways into Iran and Central Asia besides providing alternate routes for energy transportation, in the event of being choked in the crucial Malacca Straits. China's large-scale investments in infrastructural projects - Gwadar Port and overland routes - have been undertaken keeping in mind this objective.

Given these three compulsions, it is unlikely that Pakistan's importance to China is going to be diminishing in the near future. On the contrary, the relationship will be consolidated even further and broad-based to include some of the non-traditional areas of cooperation such as outer space.2

The Chinese objectives are in perfect congruence with those of Pakistan. Pakistan is also mindful of the fact that an enhanced Chinese presence will keep India away (at least Pakistan is hopeful of), thereby ensuring Pakistan the strategic depth that it has been seeking to achieve in Afghanistan.

There are other imperatives too that drive the partnership. From its historical experience in dealing with the US, Pakistan has been rather circumspect, characterising the US as an unreliable partner, who will discard Pakistan "like a used Kleenex" once its purpose is over. On the other hand, China has always stood by Pakistan, extending support at critical times when the entire world turns its back on Pakistan. Even in the recent past, the manner in which China went out of the way to save Pakistan on its role in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks is not forgotten. Pakistan, in return, will ascertain safety and security of the Chinese who may be involved in various mining projects in Afghanistan. From a resource point of view as well as keeping the Uighur problem under control, China will accept some sort of accommodation while dealing with Taliban and other terrorist groups.

The role of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in this issue cannot be minimised. A renewed relationship between China and Pakistan/Saudi Arabia may not be in the best interests of India. Will this become the new bloc of non-democracies under the Chinese leadership against the democratic world of US, India and other countries such as Japan and Australia?3 The possibility of China reaching out to these medium-sized countries, resulting in a reduced US role and influence in the coming decades, cannot be ruled out.

Given these factors, the US options such as cutting off aid to Pakistan or minimising its military presence in Afghanistan may not be quite feasible. Additionally, given that about 40 per cent of the US-ISAF logistics are transported through Pakistan makes it difficult for the US to cut off the aid. Meanwhile, Pakistan too has benefitted from the US operations in Afghanistan, and therefore while Pakistan will try different manoeuvres to get the best bargain out of Washington, it is unlikely that Islamabad will close its doors to the US.

1 "Pakistan PM Hails China Ties Amid Strains with US," AFP, Dawn, May 17, 2011, available at
2 China has agreed to strengthen their work on Pakistan's satellite, which is currently being built in China, to be launched into orbit on August 14, 2011. Other agreements in the military-security arena include: agreement to provide Pakistan 50 new JF-17 Thunder multi-role fighter planes (the Block-58 planes would be produced in Pakistan under a co-production agreement; the production likely to start in June 2012); the supply of 50 JF-17 planes (agreement signed earlier); discussing the supply of J-20 Stealth and Xiaolong/FC-1 multi-purpose light fighter aircraft to Pakistan (the mode of payment and the number of planes to be provided to Pakistan are being discussed). See Mohammad SalehZaffir, "Respect Pak Sovereignty, China Tells US," The News, May 19, 2011, available at
3 Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, "India, US and the Afghanistan Quagmire," Analysis, Observer Research Foundation, November 09, 2009, available at

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