- Raisina Debates
- Feb 21 2018
Nearly five years ago, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, speaking to the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of the People, remarked that the relations between the two countries are “higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the deepest sea and sweeter than the sweetest honey”. Pakistan describes China as their ‘all weather ally’.
Many geopolitical analysts and historians alike, however, have been bemused with this rather unconventional friendship. After all, geopolitical relations aren’t based on quantitative economic theorems but based on realpolitik.
The Pakistan-China collusiveness is as old as the founding of Pakistan. The Islamic Republic was among the first to recognise the communist party in Beijing as the rightful government while ceasing ties with the Republic of China government in Taipei. Since then, Pakistan has played the conduit role when former military dictator Yahya Khan was instrumental in opening the gateway for President Nixon’s talks with Mao’s China. The two have followed a mutual, you scratch my back and I will scratch your back policy with China backing Pakistan’s claim to Kashmir, blocking a UN resolution to designate Masood Azhar as a terrorist, while Pakistan backs China’s claims over Tibet and Taiwan. There is an interesting role that Pakistan fulfills for China – that is as a key link to the rest of the Islamic World. In some ways, Pakistan plays the ‘Saudi Arabia to the US’ role for China, sans the oil reserves of course.
And it may seem naïve in the complicated realm of geopolitics, but an enemy of an enemy is a friend. China and India have had lukewarm relations since the Sino-India war of 1962 and followed by the frequent territorial border dispute. For Pakistan, a stronger, larger, belligerent China is what it desires to keep India in check.
The way the US has long sought a democratic India as a bulwark against a communist China, Pakistan sees China as a bulwark against perceived Indian aggression.
However, of late, Pakistan sees this friendship with China as its own security blanket. While Pakistan publicly remains an ally of the US, the relationship has hit a nadir in the post 9/11 era. Musharraf may have pulled wool over the Bush administration in his faux support for the war on terror. However, the Obama administration had no real bonhomie left for Pakistan since Osama Bin Laden was found safely ensconced in a safe house in Abbottabad, barely any distance away from the Pakistan Military Academy. As Hussain Haqqani’s book ‘Magnificent Delusions’ has rightly documented that the relationship between Pakistan and the US has been based on a false foundation and is heading for a bad breakup.
President Trump’s first tweet of 2018 was one where he brazenly tweeted and insinuated that Pakistan was a terror sponsor and threatened to cut off aid. This was an aberration from prior ‘diplomacy at any cost’ policy, even though many in the Truman Building knew that Pakistan was not sincere in its war on terror. Pakistan has since increasingly turned to China to fill the superpower void.
With aid from Washington set to dwindle, Islamabad has now taken its begging bowl to Beijing, hoping to substitute its coffers with Chinese Yuan in place of American Dollars. Pakistan sees the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as Chinese doing what Uncle Sam has abdicated to do -- that is pour in truckloads of money without too many conditions.
The CPEC is said to have mutual gains for both China and Pakistan. From China’s perspective, it is part of Xi Jinping’s larger One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, while giving Beijing access to the Arabian Sea, through the deep-sea port of Gwadar in the mineral rich province of Balochistan. For Pakistan, it is Chinese investments that will modernize its ailing infrastructure while empowering various energy related sectors and giving the economy a much-needed boost.
However, Pakistan maybe myopically forgetting that Chinese investments aren’t the same as American aid or grants. They may come in fancy red envelopes; however, the red sign is a caveat. Hambantota, on the southern tip of Sri Lanka has now come under the radar. As part of the former Sri Lankan President’s plan to modernize the port town, China happily obliged to invest in its transformation. However, the lack of tourism and business receipts, saw Sri Lanka hit in the face with a gargantuan debt. In order to pay off its debt, China now owns 70% of the port on a 99-year-lease.
Pakistan could very well fall into the same debt trap as Sri Lanka; being enticed by easy loans in exchange for equity. Given Pakistan’s rather moribund economy, failure to pay back the loans, could see a form of Chinese colonialisation.
The Pakistan and the US faux alliance began to crumble as they found they had divergent interests and priorities; similarly, China and Pakistan are very different states at their core DNA. While Pakistan, is one of the few nations created on the basis of a single religion (and the only one created on the basis of Islam), China by nature preaches state atheism. Pakistan sees itself through an Islamic lens while China has been recognised as the most atheist country.
This would be a problem with regards to Xinjiang province of China, (neighboring Pakistan administered Kashmir) home to the Uighurs, a distinct Muslim minority. China has long been accused of suppressing religious freedoms among the Uighurs. Several members of the community have fled across the border taking shelter in Pakistan. China continues to remain suspicious of the Uighur community in Pakistan, generally viewing them as supporters of the East Turkestan independence movement.
It is highly unlikely that the Islamists of Pakistan, that are known to routinely call for Jihad against India, the US and other Western powers for what they describe as enemies of Islam, to stand by quietly while China enforces its Marxist Atheist leanings on the community.
Slashing ties with Washington and mollycoddling to Beijing may not help Islamabad in the long run. While Pakistan continues to be one of China’s largest arms importer, Beijing cannot supply the same quality of high-tech sophisticated weaponry as Washington can and has done for many years.
Then there is the strong element of cultural link with the US. Most urban metropolis youth in Pakistan, like many of their contemporaries in South Asia, are heavily influenced by the west. Given the language barrier, China cannot fulfill the soft power quotient. Furthermore, I was once surprised to learn from a Pakistani Fulbright scholar that there were far more Pakistani Fulbright scholars than Indians. This astounded me for the obvious reasons, given India was more voluminous and one would confidently assume, India had far more talent given its numerical strength. However, he remarked, India unlike Pakistan is not a troublesome Islamic nation in American eyes. The Fulbright program is a key part of US soft power, whereby the benefactors of the program reap the benefits of top US education, on a full scholarship, condition being they would head back to their home country after completing their programme. The hope was that the more American influenced the students were, the better chances of enhancing US ties with the native country, given the high likelihood of the Fulbright scholars rising to the highest echelons of government and the private sector in their home county.
The long-term repercussions for Pakistan may not be pretty: it’s unlikely a high performing student from Lahore would aspire to study at Peiking University, the same way he would at Princeton.
Geopolitically, Pakistan was able to brazenly adopt its ‘bleed India with a thousand cuts’ policy with regards to cross border terrorism in Kashmir, knowing that the US would continue to provide the regular supply of arms and aid to Islamabad, given Pakistan was indispensable for the American’s Afghan interests. Pakistan, feels China now provides the superpower umbrella protective layer.
While China is invested in Pakistan economically, militarily and politically – it’s only one part of China’s larger geopolitical dossier. China has its own agenda and is maneuvering other diplomatic hurdles, be it in the South China Sea with US and ASEAN nations. It’s constantly trying to mediate between North Korea and the West. It has a long-standing imbroglio with Taiwan and is in a diplomatic spat with Japan over the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands. China’s global ambitions on the world stage reflect its expansionist economic agenda with its One Belt One Road initiative. And above them all, taking the United States’ place as the linchpin of global economic stability as the Trump administration adopts a more insular and protectionist agenda.
So, Islamabad may be putting all its eggs in Beijing’s basket, but China has larger and more global ambitions and Pakistan is only one part of that. Pakistan may find itself in China’s moral debt, and perhaps literally in financial debt with the CPEC investments.
After the Hambantota port incident, Sri Lanka will attest that it hasn’t been ‘smooth sailing’ (pun intended).
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).