Originally Published 2012-04-11 00:00:00 Published on Apr 11, 2012
It is not often that Pakistan's leaders justify their outreach to India by citing its all-weather friend, China. That is precisely what Pakistan's premier Yousuf Raza Gilani did last Sunday when he welcomed the talks between President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Chinese surprise
It is not often that Pakistan’s leaders justify their outreach to India by citing its all-weather friend, China. That is precisely what Pakistan’s premier Yousuf Raza Gilani did last Sunday when he welcomed the talks between President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The triangular dynamic between Islamabad, Beijing and Delhi has clearly begun to evolve. Speaking to reporters in Lahore, Mr. Gilani reportedly said: "Our best friend China, whose own trade volume with India has touched $75 billion, has advised us to promote trade relations with India." In setting up a roadmap for normalising trade relations with India, Mr. Zardari broke a big political taboo in Pakistan - no real business with India until the Kashmir question is resolved. Militant groups in Pakistan, including the Lashkar-e-Toiba, are protesting Mr. Zardari’s decision. In citing Chinese support for the move, Mr. Zardari and Mr. Gilani have a powerful political argument for improving economic ties with India.

Few in Pakistan ever criticise China. The political classes and the garrulous talking heads across the border hold up China as a genuine partner that has stood by Pakistan through thick and thin, while the friendship with the United States has always been episodic and transactional.

The Chinese media was was quick to welcome Mr. Zardari’s talks with Dr. Singh, and the foreign office in Beijing formally endorsed the attempts by the South Asian rivals to improve their bilateral relations. In an editorial on Tuesday, China Daily hoped that the olive branch being waved by Mr. Zardari and Dr. Singh will grow into a thriving tree. It concluded that increased trade between the two countries will not only benefit their economies but also bring tangible benefits to their people.

Beijing’s enthusiastic support to Indo-Pak normalisation is relatively new. Way back in November 1996, when Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Islamabad, he had urged Pakistan to put aside its political disputes with India and focus on economic cooperation. Since then, China seemed to return to what many in Delhi consider a policy of balancing India by unflinching support to Islamabad. The latest turn in China’s South Asia policy comes amidst the incipient US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the prospect of greater instability in Pakistan, and their potential impact on China’s external and internal security. As it prepares to cope with the US pivot to East Asia, Beijing would want to keep its South Asian frontier relatively tranquil. As Delhi carefully scrutinises Beijing’s new logic, it has every reason to welcome it.

Geopolitical dynamic

China is not the only great power contributing to the new geopolitics of the subcontinent. Washington’s decision to announce a bounty on the head of LeT boss Hafiz Saeed just before Mr. Zardari arrived in Delhi, set the conspiracy theorists in the subcontinent speculating. The fact, however, is that Indo-Pak relations are showing signs of positive movement at a time when Washington’s ties with Islamabad are heading south. This does not necessarily mean the US is opposed to the normalisation of Indo-Pak relations. Washington has been as effusive as Beijing in supporting the peace initiatives of Dr. Singh and Mr. Zardari.

Delhi has long assumed that Washington and Beijing are irrevocably committed to supporting Pakistan at the expense of India. Delhi needs to revise that assumption as American and Chinese concerns mount at the various negative forces radiating out of Pakistan. As the subcontinent’s tectonic plates move, it is up to Delhi to take full advantage of the changing great power approaches to Pakistan and India.

New regionalism

While Mr. Gilani’s comments on China have got some media attention in Delhi, his remarks on the broader possibilities for economic cooperation with India have not. Underlining Pakistan’s new regional approach, Mr. Gilani said: "Progress on the balance of trade with India, Pakistan-Afghanistan transit trade and energy projects with Iran will help the country achieve its cherished goal of regional stability."

Mr. Zardari and Mr. Gilani might yet stumble in their effort to redefine Pakistan’s regional relationships. But there is no denying the new compulsions for change in Pakistan. The dominant view in Pakistan has been that its regional role must be in competition with India. Pakistan’s civilian rulers are trying to change that framework and make cooperation with India an important element of national strategy. Delhi has nothing to lose by backing the forces of change in Pakistan.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. This is a fortnightly column on the high politics of the Af-Pak region, the fulcrum of global power play in India’s neighbourhood)

Courtesy: The Indian Express, April 11, 2012.

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