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Pakistan’s Future Is Linked To China. It Should Not Worry About The West

The recent “sudden” thaw in Pakistan-India relations reminds all the efforts done by PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and General Musharraf, which were continued until the wistful day of November 26, when Mumbai was attacked by the terrorists. The peace efforts began between PM Nawaz Sharif and PM Narendra Modi but attacks on Pathankot, then Pulwama, badly damaged all the peace efforts between the two countries, and both nuclear powers got engaged in a war-like situation. However, when Pakistan Air Force responded to Indian aggression decisively, and shot down an Indian jet and captured its pilot, the Indian establishment and the world – strongly overestimating the Indian capabilities and underestimating Pakistan’s response– used to be of a view that in case of war, the Indian Air Force would completely control the skies. They have now realized that Pakistan can respond, prolong and escalate the war as long as it is required. This new understanding could be one reason why the world has decided to put some effort to lower down the temperature on the borders.

Now the big question: Does the new administration in Washington DC would want Pakistan and India to terminate their military adventurism against each other? The answer to this question is yes. However, they want these hostilities, at least to reduce to “safe levels” even if it would not be completely terminated.

But why? This is the place where the “China Syndrome” kicks in.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Islamabad in 2015 was largely focused on broadening deep economic relations. The military leadership in Pakistan briefed President Xi on the progress in counter-militancy operations and efforts to promote peace in neighbouring Afghanistan. China’s pledge of billions of dollar investment in development projects not only gained headlines in Pakistan media but the international media also highlighted it and argued that those development plans were only half of a strategy aimed at simultaneously improving the region’s security issues along with its economy. The New York Times, on April 19, 2015, highlighted the high profiled visit of the 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 shortcut for the shipment of goods from Europe to China, avoiding the Strait of Malacca farther east”.

The multi-billion-dollar plan, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) launched in 2015, had a goal not only to link the economy of Pakistan to an economic giant but also to accentuate 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 Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, to Pakistan’s southwestern port of Gwadar. Economically, it consists of cooperation in the financing, investment, measures on energy which cover 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 the most underdeveloped areas of Pakistan and China by reducing poverty and generating employment.

The pronounced benefit of China with CPEC was 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 would be done through Gwadar port. Another benefit China sees in investing in Pakistan is that after the CPEC would be operational, it would initiate more economical activities in the Northwestern Xinjiang province which has for years been tarnished with the separatist movements.

For three decades the export-based economy of China grew almost at a 10% rate but from 2013, the growth rate has declined to 6-7%. It further went down in 2020 due to the COVID-9 pandemic. Investing in infrastructure 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 than what is 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 will address some of China’s crucial but excruciating security concerns which will be discussed here in some detail.

Some years ago, CBS News quoted 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 – 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 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 the US can continue its martial hegemony in Asia and Africa. After the Biden Administration took the White House, China’s concern is further aggravated.

Territorial disputes over the handful of islands of the East and South China Sea have already thrashed relations between China and ASEAN countries 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 standoffs among the countries of the region. Some analysts in Asia and Europe believe that 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 go to South Korea, Japan, and China, carried by sea, has to pass through the 1.5 nautical miles wide Strait of Malacca. According to one media report, more than half of 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 the potential to impose a naval blockade on the narrow Malacca strait and strangle China economically.

China believes that it must preempt the situation and form its alliances to counter the possible hostility.

The new administration in the White House, which is more engaged with the world unlike the previous one, would like to continue the policy of containing China. There is a belief in the US power circles that India can provide this counterweight. But if India would engage itself in border disputes with Pakistan, it would not be able to assist the West in checking China. Under the pressure from the world and due to the vested interests of some groups who are now brought on the helm of affairs by Pakistan’s all-powerful establishment, Pakistan has already slowed down the CPEC and the ongoing projects are progressing at a very slow pace. But for China, it is a matter of its national security and future survival, so it would do every effort and finally would achieve its security guarantees, no matter Pakistan would help or not. If China decides to side with India, and India sees the benefit in making good relations with it, India would not be a part of any Western effort to contain China. The US never saw Pakistan as a viable ally, its interests in Pakistan were always for military assistance strictly on the “need basis”. This interest is already diminished to a very narrow interest – an Afghan pull-out.

Having good relations with India is indeed a key for Pakistan’s economic progress, however, when nations have strategic disputes like Kashmir, they must be resolved; otherwise the relations cannot be normalized. It’s also true that Sino-India border disputes which took these countries to war also, do not prevent them from doing the trade. However, the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan is much more burning and it is provoked by both countries so much that the people from both countries would not allow their governments to impose any solution which is anything less than the zero-sum-game.

So, to proceed, there has to be a strong will and leadership in all parties, which are missing from the screen.

The sudden India-Pakistan thaw in the relationship is more to India’s benefit because, after a stand-off with China and a constant war-like situation on Kashmir borders, India is looking for some relief. The involvement of UAE and KSA in the India-Pakistan issue shows that the US would like some calm on the border so that India would play its part which the US wants it to play. Although Pakistan will have some peace dividends as well, it may not help Pakistan in controlling its dwindling economy and political instability.

So the time has come that Pakistan should stop looking at the West and worrying too much about the complete normalization of its relations with India. Instead, it should mend its relations with China and have some progress with Russia and Central Asia. With India, Pakistan should work to keep borders calm and quiet and allow people-to-people contacts.

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Naya Daur