Amity Under Stress?
How much can the two countries gain from an ‘all-weather’ friendship? With global dynamics changing, Pakistan needs to step up its game if it hopes to keep China interested.
If the intricacy of geo-politics had to be explicitly described, the intertwined strategic objectives in the ‘all-weather’ relationship between Pakistan and China will be a leading precedent. After all, the strength of Pak-china ties surface in the local and global media with varying intensities as Pakistan’s relations with superpower, US and rival neighbor, India, witness highs and lows.
The saga of the conventionally chanted ‘Pak-cheen-dosti’ (Pak-china friendship) has another country playing a sometimes direct and sometimes indirect, yet crucial role – India. Lately, the influence of the US has also brought in a bone of contention in the not-so-simple dynamics of the amity between China and Pakistan.
Historically, China has eyed the ofttouted amiable relations with Pakistan as a hedge against its regional rival India. Following the Sino-indian border war of 1962, Pakistan’s relations with China blossomed with China advancing tremendous military aid to the country - a move largely perceived by analysts as China’s attempts to stave off hostility from the Indians. From missiles, aircraft and military training to furtive cooperation in developing nuclear technology, including nuclear weapons, China’s supply of arms has played a major role in strengthening ties with a ‘defense-heavy’ Pakistan.
Pakistan has had its share of the prize too as far as Sino-pak ties are concerned. While the country has relied on China, especially with regard to military aid, to fend off threats of aggression from its neighbor-cum-rival, the Red Dragon has also lent economic support, especially in the energy and trade sectors, with the most prominent being the development of the Gwadar Port. Telecommunication, mining, power and energy sectors have also witnessed extensive investments from the Chinese.
However, this friendship of the past fifty years has been subjected to the vagaries of global politics and trade over the last decade, with PakChina ties resurfacing in media talks, particularly hinting at the question of a possible redefinition of the conventional ‘friendliness.’
With China’s vision of enhancing its economic importance in the globe today – visions that are veritably seeing the light of day – China’s priorities are influencing the Pak-cheen Dosti panorama considerably. For once, in the much more globalised world of today, where emerging markets are gaining consequential prominence, India has become a key trade partner of China. The ultimate economic goals have encouraged China to turn to a revival of diplomatic relations with India, with the two countries vowing to increase bilateral trade from $60 billion in 2010 to $100 billion by 2015.
Contrast this with last year’s pledge between Pakistan and China to enhance bilateral trade from nearly $4.5 billion in FY2010 to $15 billion by 2015 and the changing economic relations in the India-pakistan-china triangle become obvious. In fact, a closer look reveals that it is China rather than Pakistan which has gained from the signing of the free-trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries in 2006. The structural gaps in Pakistan’s economy are very much to blame for its apparent apathy in taking advantage of the FTA; while imports from China have grown considerably, exports from Pakistan to China have depicted only marginal growth, showing a widening trade gap between the two countries.
Further, the recent withdrawal, due to security concerns, of the China
Kingho Group – one of China’s largest private coal miners – from a $19 billion investment deal in southern Sindh, puts a question mark over the extent to which Pakistan can rely on China.
The presence of the US has also complicated this equation where emerging economies such as India and China are gaining global importance. Historically, Pakistan has relied extensively on the US for economic and military aid, not precluding its strategic interests in all gestures of helping Pakistan. The recent souring of relations between the US and Pakistan after the killing of Osama Bin Laden resulted in the latter turning to its ‘all-weather’ friend, and despite a cordial reception, Islamabad did not walk away with much gains.
Many experts claim that China will be reluctant to supersede the superpower and act as a surrogate for the US in Pakistan at a time when Beijing is brimming with global ambitions. In fact, turning to China as far as economic assistance is concerned is also not much of an alternate to US aid for Pakistan, for the latter has received over $95 billion in aid from the US in the past 60 odd years – a whopping sum that Beijing, in all likelihood, will not match. Even net foreign direct in- vestment by China in Pakistan pales in comparison to that by the US. Besides the economic misgivings, strategic Sino-pak relations have come under test also because of allegations of Pakistani militants spurring unrest in the north-western Xinjiang region in China, raising qualms about the strength of the ‘all-weather’ ties.
Thus, changing ambitions of the Red Dragon for a greater presence in international trade and global economics have had a crucial impact on Pak-china friendship. Given China’s enhanced presence in global trade and greater role in international arenas, Pakistan needs to be proactive as far as amicability with Beijing is concerned. With changing global dynamics, Sino-pak ties are also bound to change and Pakistan’s strategic ties with the country have to be molded accordingly. Blindfolded reliance on China for all and sundry is not a panacea; Pakistan needs to put its economy and growth in top gear to garner greater gains not only from China, but from other strategic allies too. The writer is a Research Analyst at Daily Business Recorder and a student of Economics and Finance at the School of Oriental and African Studies.