Pakistan key in China’s Great Game
The rhetoric reached the heights of the Himalayas, the pomp and pageantry evoked that of an operetta, but the political optics delivered a clearly focused political message: Pakistan has a firm and reliable friend in the People’s Republic of China.
The high-profile visit to Pakistan by China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping brought more than political bromides from Beijing to beleaguered Pakistan; China has put US$46 billion in infrastructural investment on the table for its longtime South Asian ally.
The reasons for the renewed coziness between Islamabad and Beijing are plenty: a common border, shared political interests concerning the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism and concerns in both capitals that American political inroads into neighboring India, Pakistan’s historic rival, need a counterbalance.
What ties the bow together is China’s ambitious geopolitical New Silk Road and New Maritime Silk Road economic initiative connecting the Middle Kingdom with Eurasia by land and Southeast Asia by sea.
China’s US$ 46 billion infrastructural investment in Pakistan is set to build a network of roads, railroads and port facilities that are part of the New Silk Road connecting China to Europe through Central Asia.
The ambitious plan for a 1,800-mile highway allows the PRC backdoor overland access to the port of Gwadar but through Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan region.
Though Pakistan has been courted by Washington as a vial ally in the war on terror and as a key player in Afghanistan, the relationship was often stormy and beset by political mood swings on both sides.
Between 2009 and 2012, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed a US$7.5 billion economic program for Pakistan that was largely unfocused and part of the Obama Administration’s widely flawed “AfPak” security policy plan, which was deemed a failure.
Since 2002, U.S. aid to Pakistan has reached US$31 billion, about two thirds of it is security assistance, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The real question becomes whether Pakistan’s economy will be able to effectively absorb so much aid over a short period without wasteful and massive corruption. Without question, Beijing is playing for higher stakes and putting more money on the table. The unspoken concern by the Chinese is that Islamic radicalism is already spilling across the Pakistan border into China’s restive Xinjiang province where a large Muslim population is tightly controlled by the communist authorities.
Addressing the parliament in Islamabad, Chinese leader Xi Jinping recalled the historically close ties with Pakistan, one of the first Islamic states to recognize the People’s Republic in 1951 during its era of diplomatic isolation.
“The invocations of enduring friendship are music to the ears of a country accustomed to being vilified globally for so many years now,” wrote an editorial in Pakistan’s major daily newspaper Dawn.
Describing American diplomacy “as an erratic and somewhat hapless broker,”
China, according to Dawn “commands the credibility amongst the leadership and the populations of all countries in the region.”
Setting up the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has a clear commercial logic but equally a military one.
The Port of Gwadar, being developed by PRC engineers since 2013, would be the terminus of the long overland line from Xinjiang in China’s remote and landlocked west.
Yet Gwadar, once ruled by Oman but sold to Pakistan in the 1950’s, is quite close to the Persian Gulf and Straits of Hormuz sea-lanes through which over forty percent of the world’s petroleum flows.
Through its presence in Gwadar, China seeks to surround India.
Separate reports indicate that China has sold Pakistan eight submarines.
The deal for the diesel Yuanclass subs is reported to be US$5 billion.
The PRC is already Pakistan’s largest weapons supplier and equally played a key role in developing its nuclear weapons program.
In fitting tribute, as Xi Jinping’s 747 aircraft left Pakistani airspace, it was escorted by eight Pakistani JF-17 fighters, a military jet coproduced with China.
Beijing’s renewed relationship with Pakistan has reached a new intensity and is based on common economic and security interests.
How much these ties impact on India and the USA throughout the region is yet to be seen. John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of “Divided Dynamism: The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China” (2014). Contact him at jjmcolumn@ earthlink.net