Trump, CPEC and se­cu­rity: In­ter­est­ing times ahead

This is the se­cond of a two-part ar­ti­cle on China, Pak­istan, US and In­dia. The first part of the ar­ti­cle, ‘Is CPEC East In­dia Com­pany Mark 2?’ was pub­lished on 2 De­cem­ber.

The Sunday Guardian - - World -

As f a r a s USPak­istan re­la­tions go, 2018 cer­tainly started wit h a bang. On 1 Jan­uary, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s itchy Twit­ter fin­ger hit the key­board with gusto, ac­cus­ing the Is­lamic Repub­lic of tak­ing $33 bil­lion of aid since 2002. In re­turn, Trump claimed all the US had re­ceived were lies and de­ceit on the is­sue of counter-ter­ror­ism. It was not the New Year’s Day greet­ing Islamabad had wished for.

For sea­soned Trump watch­ers though, it had an air of in­evitabil­ity about it. If the Amer­i­can pub­lic is per­haps less versed in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and over­seas po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments than oth­ers, Pak­istan is a coun­try known to them largely through one lens— ter­ror­ism. Osama Bin Laden was not dis­cov­ered hid­ing in an ob­scure cave com­plex on the Pak­istan-Afghanistan bor­der, but in­stead in 2011 liv­ing in a com­pound in the gar­ri­son town of Ab­bot­tabad. The is­sue of ter­ror­ism was also a key com­po­nent of Trump’s quest to win the Re­pub­li­can Pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. When Pak­istani-Amer­i­can Syed Fa­rook and his re­cently set­tled Pak­istani bride, Tash­feen Ma­lik opened fire at a health fa­cil­ity Christ­mas party in San Ber­nadino on 2 De­cem­ber 2015, Trump re­sponded five days later by is­su­ing his con­tentious call to ban all Mus­lims from en­ter­ing the United States.

Fol­low­ing Trump’s elect i on, re­la­tions cooled fur­ther be­tween the two coun­tries, even be­tween el­e­ments such as the Pen­tagon and Pak­istani mil­i­tary, who once en­joyed good re­la­tions. Whilst the oc­ca­sional voice has been heard in Pak­istan’s sup­port (such as Michael Scheuer, the for­mer head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit), the man who wrote The Art of the Deal sees lit­tle worth bid­ding for in Islamabad.

Trump’s big pic­ture cen­tres on mak­ing Amer­ica great again. As such, China ap­pears as both the eco­nomic com­peti­tor, but also a fu­ture po­ten­tial mil­i­tary ri­val. Here Trump is not act­ing as dif­fer­ently as some may think—Obama’s ten­ta­tive for­eign pol­icy was in re­al­ity de­signed to pivot away from prob­lem­atic com­mit­ments in the Mid­dle East to­wards Asia and the Pa­cific, in order to counter the in­flu­ence of China. The com­ing to­gether of China and Pak­istan on se­cu­rity is- sues at the United Na­tions is caus­ing con­cern to both In­dia and the US. China’s re­fusal to add Jaish-e-Muham­mad founder Ma­sood Azhar to the list of ter­ror­ists held by the Al- Qaida Sanc­tions Com­mit­tee is a trou­bling act that will not have gone un­no­ticed in the White House.

If Pak­istan proved to be too much bad news for the US, China has its own con­cerns. The need to keep sep­a­rate Pak­istan’s rau­cous Is­lamic cler­ics and cam­paign­ers from events in Mus­lim Xin­jiang is an im­por­tant pol­icy. So far cler­ics have shown greater in­ter­est in up­hold­ing Pak­istan’s no­to­ri­ous blas­phemy laws than events over the bor­der, but as the scale of China’s crack­down on the Uighurs gar­ners greater at­ten­tion, can this last? The last thing China wants is for its in­vest­ments to be­come a tar­get for protests or even more se­ri­ous vi­o­lence, in the name of Is­lamic sol­i­dar­ity. In 2017, the Euro­pean Foun­da­tion for South Asian Stud­ies ex­pressed con­cern that Pak­istan could dis­tract some of its Is­lamists by re- fo­cus­ing ef­forts on its proxy war in Jammu and Kash­mir. As is clear from China’s at­ti­tude to Ma­sood Azhar, this, and the main­stream­ing of ex­trem­ists like Hafiz Saeed, may be ap­proaches with which China has few con­cerns.

The China Pak­istan Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor ( CPEC) has given im­pe­tus to re­gional and sep­a­ratist ac­tors in Pak­istan, and from the coun­try’s sig­nif­i­cant di­as­pora, who ap­pear to look more crit­i­cally at the pro­gramme than Islamabad does. Here un­com­fort­able ques­tions, such as whether CPEC re­sem­bles an East In­dia Com­pany Mark Two, are be­ing asked. The na­ture of China’s ex­ist­ing in­vest­ments in Africa, and most notably Sri Lanka, is be­ing dis­cussed with doubts— and more—emerg­ing about the vast amount of debt Pak­istan is po­ten­tially tak­ing on. Can a coun­try which may be seek­ing sup­port from the IMF take ob­jec­tive de­ci­sions about its on­go­ing re­la­tion­ship with Bei­jing? The an­swer to debt can­not al­ways be more debt. The harsh les­son from Sri Lanka’s port devel­op­ment at Ham­ban­tota is that when coun­tries can­not meet their fi­nan­cial obli­ga­tions to Bei­jing, Pres­i­dent Xi is happy to take ter­ri­tory in re­turn. Hav­ing ini­tially bought its port at Gwadar from Oman, Pak­istan holds ter­ri­tory in an area jeal­ously watched by Iran for any Saudi pres­ence, and one where devel­op­ment greatly wor­ries In­dia. Gwadar forms the end of the long road from, or to­wards China. Pak­istan can­not risk los­ing a deep wa­ter port it waited decades to de­velop, through get­ting into the same debt trap the Sri Lankans did.

At a Euro­pean Foun­da­tion for South Asian Stud­ies sem­i­nar at the Euro­pean Union’s Par­lia­ment in Brus­sels on 7 Novem­ber, rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Baloch and Kash­miri di­as­pora re­minded their au­di­ence that CPEC will also travel through dis­puted ter­ri­tory. The op­por­tu­nity to air crit­i­cism of both Pak­istan and China’s hu­man rights record was taken, and the greater the global fo­cus on CPEC, the fur­ther such op­por­tu­ni­ties will oc­cur. Bei­jing and Islamabad will not like ev­ery­thing they are go­ing to hear over the next few years. It is not just Pres­i­dent Trump who is watch­ing the Pak­istan-China re­la­tion­ship closely. Dr Paul Stott is an aca­demic work­ing in the Cen­tre for In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies and Diplo­macy at SOAS Univer­sity of Lon­don, and is a fel­low of the Euro­pean Foun­da­tion for South Asian Stud­ies. He tweets @MrPaulS­tott


Chi­nese Premier Li Ke­qiang (R) and Pak­istani Prime Min­is­ter Im­ran Khan (L), af­ter their talks at the Great Hall of the Peo­ple in Bei­jing, cap­i­tal of China, on 3 Novem­ber.


US Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo meets with Pak­istani For­eign Min­is­ter Shah Mehmood Qureshi at the US State Depart­ment in Wash­ing­ton on 3 Oc­to­ber.

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