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BFF: Pakistan and China

A beleaguered Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani came back from Beijing a happy man last week, with a promise of 50 fighter jets and a Chinese warning to the US not to do an Abbottabad again. Reshma Patil reports.

world Updated: May 29, 2011 03:05 IST
Reshma Patil

A beleaguered Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani came back from Beijing a happy man last week, with a promise of 50 fighter jets and a Chinese warning to the US not to do an Abbottabad again.

China’s unusually strong backing of Pakistan since the US raid on Osama bin Laden has raised questions on where what some analysts call the “ChiPak” alliance is going. Even inside China there is debate about Beijing’s next move in Islamabad, with at least one group urging caution about seeking to be the alternative Pakistan prop to the US.

A sign of this divide surfaced when Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said on Tuesday she had ‘not heard of’ the Pakistan defence minister’s offer of a Chinese naval base at the strategic Gwadar port.

But an editorial in the nationalist Global Times struck a different note: “If China is going to play an important role in the Asia-Pacific and on the international stage, as urged by the international community, it eventually will need to establish overseas military bases in cooperation with other countries.’’

Beijing scholars indicated that the Chinese view was that the timing was not right for China to go beyond rhetoric, gifts of arms and infrastructure projects to prop up its old ally.

At a time Beijing is preoccupied with issues of domestic instability and social unrest, it does not want trouble on the international front.

Two schools

However, hard-nosed realists see this as a temporary phenomenon and argue a Pakistan moving away from the US is a positive development for ties with China.

“In the short term, the US raid actually helped improve the China-Pakistan relationship,’’ said Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations, Tsinghua University. “The Pakistan government must rethink its relationship with the US.”

Yan is one of these ‘realist scholars’ who believe China should not hide its might. "We must face reality,’’ he said at a recent book launch. "The world no longer thinks China is a developing nation."

He predicts China will step in with greater economic aid for Afghanistan when the US pulls out troops. But for now, the Chinese warning to the US to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty is just a message. “Pakistan has not called the US raid an attack,’’ pointed out Yan.

More cautious schools argue Pakistan’s stability is important but prefer the US to shoulder the burden.

“The US and China won’t collide over Pakistan, it’s a common concern,’’ said Zhu Feng, deputy director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Peking University. “China as an alternative to the US is impossible.’’

On the day of Gilani’s talk at Peking University, Zhu was painting dramatic scenarios in his second-floor chamber to explain why China is defending its old ally with no questions asked. “From China’s perspective, the stability of Pakistan serves us best,’’ Zhu said. “We don’t want to see Islamabad as a failed state.”

“Any lingering tension between Islamabad and Washington will possibly add to the instability of Pakistan,’’ he said. “If any of the worst scenarios occur, Islamist extremists may fragment Islamabad. And if there is turmoil, then who will control the nuclear arsenal? Will it proliferate?’’

For now, however, China won’t say anything critical of Pakistan. Off record, one Chinese scholar described the US raid as ‘counter-productive’ to Pakistan domestic stability and the Chinese foreign ministry statements as a ‘message to the US’ not to repeat the raid.

“Frankly, the Osama mission is a US mission not a China or Pakistan mission. The whereabouts of Laden are also a US concern, it has nothing to do with us,’’ said Zhao Gancheng, South Asia strategist at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies. “The accusations of Osama’s support network in Pakistan are meaningless. There should be solid evidence and logic.’’

Old friends

China and Pakistan are six decades old strategic allies — ‘like one nation, two countries’ said Gilani recently — and they came closer after Abbottabad sent the Chinese foreign ministry into a daylong silence before issuing a reaction.

China is the only power to decline to criticise Islamabad after bin Laden was found living in a large compound near the Pakistan Military Academy.

Chinese scholars are intensely surprised at why the world is raising eyebrows at Beijing’s overt support to Pakistan, help that includes the immediate shipment of 50 fighter jets each worth $20-25 million and aid to build highways, railways and nuclear power reactors.

They bluntly described Pakistan as the only nation that China can trust in an Asia where Beijing is ‘encircled’ by US allies including India. President Hu Jintao was quoted in Xinhua as telling Gilani that they must consolidate relations ‘under the current complex and volatile international and regional situation’.

“China wants to shore up Pakistan's international security and be seen as its saviour,’’ said Teresita Schaffer at the University of Pennsylvania. “It also wants to keep India off-balance.’’

Holding Pakistan’s hand in its time of trouble has added a third element to the Chipak alliance. After the 1962 border war, China had wooed Pakistan as a counterbalance to India. More recently, argue some, Beijing saw additional utility in Pakistan’s ability to tie down the US in an Afghan military morass.

In the past two years there is evidence China is concerned at the frailty of their principal Asian ally.

“China has developed enormous strategic equities in Pakistan that do not allow Beijing to let Pakistan go under,’’ said Honolulu-based strategist Mohan Malik.

“If the PLA does not back Islamabad all the way, Pakistan may become destabilised, completely slide into the American camp, or come to terms with Indian predominance — outcomes detrimental to China’s core security interests.”

Malik said that the Sino-Pakistan “all-weather” relationship which had the goal of containing India has now expanded into a broader partnership that encompasses transnational security issues (jihadi terrorism, sea lanes safety, economic and resource security) and countering US hegemony.

Eye on India

New Delhi feels much of the new Pakistan first policy is being done largely at India’s expense: China’s issuance of stapled visas to Kashmiris, its push to provide new nuclear reactors in Chashma, the building of strategic roads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and an unwillingness to back India’s bid as a permanent member in the UN Security Council.

Publicly Beijing says its ties with Pakistan are not aimed at India. “China hopes that India and Pakistan will reach some sort of consensus, the faster the better,’’ said Zhao.

While some influential Chinese think tankers also caution that China cannot afford to alienate India and the US while rushing to rescue Pakistan, the majority are clear that the all weather friend is Beijing’s overwhelming priority.

“In my view, the China-Pakistan relationship is an even better bilateral relationship than the Sino-Russian relationship,’’ said Yan.

“The India-China relationship cannot catch up with the China-Pakistan relationship in the visible future.”