PAKISTAN and China have enjoyed a close and trouble-free relationship for almost 60 years. Their respective strategic interests have been fully aligned. China helped Pakistan moderate the military threat from India. Pakistan helped China keep India at bay.
However, propelled by the tri-polar contest between the US, China and Russia, the correlation of forces in South Asia is in flux. The regional relationships with the major power are again polarised, with India now aligned with the US and Pakistan with China. Yet, today’s equations are more complex than during the Cold War and could evolve in unexpected ways.
In recent months, Pakistan has confronted the consequences of the emerging alliance between the US and India, manifested in US pressure on Pakistan to neutralise the pro-Kashmiri groups and to unilaterally restrain its nuclear and missile programmes, notwithstanding India’s massive arms build-up and sponsorship of terrorism against Pakistan.
The US-India alliance is pushing Pakistan into an even greater dependence on China.
While Pakistan’s diplomacy is preoccupied with managing the crisis with the US, other emerging trends could affect Pakistan’s strategic interests and its stable relationship with China.
The US-India alliance is pushing Pakistan into an even greater dependence on China and to promote new cooperation with Russia. Yet, Moscow still is obliged to retain its legacy arms supply relationship with India. And both China and Russia want to hold back India from a full-blown military alliance with the US.
China is progressively recognising that, despite Sino-US interdependencies and its best efforts to avoid friction, the Trump administration is ideologically committed to confronting and containing China, economically, politically and militarily. China wants to diminish the strength of the coalition the US wants to deploy against it. It is building close relations with several neighbours — Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar — and even those, like the Philippines, with which it has maritime disputes. The rhetoric against Japan has been softened.
Since the resolution of the Doklam dispute, China has made several notable overtures to New Delhi, including the mention of the anti-India terrorist groups in the BRICS Summit communiqué and, more recently, by lifting its objection to Pakistan’s listing on the FATF’s grey list. Meanwhile, some Chinese commentaries have highlighted the Sino-Indian convergent interests, including their $100 billion trade relationship, substantial Chinese investment in India and similar trade friction with the US.
After veering sharply towards Washington, India may be reflecting on the advisability of a uni-dimensional alliance with Trump’s America. The international media has noted India’s official abstention from the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan ceremonies. It is speculated that India’s new foreign secretary, a former ambassador to China, may have been responsible for this adjustment and may promote a recalibration of India’s China policy. Reportedly, India has not displayed over-enthusiasm for the anti-China military coalition of the US, Japan, Australia, India (the so-called Quad) conceived by Washington. Considerable significance is being accorded to the forthcoming meeting in China between Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi.
These developments may have significant implications for Pakistan. In several important dimensions, a closer relationship between China and India may be positive for Pakistan. It could lead to a reduction in India’s threats against Pakistan; an end to India’s attempts to sabotage CPEC and the resumption of a Pakistan-India dialogue.
But, if history is any guide, India will seek the best of all worlds: American weapons and advanced technology and pressure against Pakistan as well as Chinese trade and investment and neutralisation of Beijing’s objections to India’s hegemonic ambitions in South Asia.
Among other things, India is likely to seek: Chinese pressure on Pakistan to act against pro-Kashmiri militant groups and end all support to the ongoing Kashmiri freedom struggle; and restrictions on the supply of advanced Chinese weapons systems and technology to Pakistan.
Pakistan should advance its own five-point positive agenda to intensify and modernise its time-tested relationship with China. While remaining responsive to China’s global and regional interests, Islamabad should urge Beijing, at the highest level, to:
— work actively for a just and peaceful solution to the Jammu and Kashmir dispute in accordance with UN resolutions and an end to India’s brutal suppression of the Kashmiri people’s freedom movement. Without this, there will be no durable peace or stability in South Asia.
— express publicly its opposition to any use or threat of force against Pakistan and warn that this would evoke an appropriate Chinese response. Such Chinese support has been the fundamental foundation of the Pakistan-China strategic partnership and has been reciprocated by Pakistan’s strong defence of China’s unity and territorial integrity including its maritime claims in the South China Sea.
— affirm that the security of CPEC is the common responsibility of Pakistan and China. This project serves the strategic interests of both countries. India-sponsored terrorism from Afghanistan and elsewhere to sabotage CPEC is as much an attack on Chinese as Pakistani interests. Moreover, any incentive offered to India to join CPEC should be made jointly by Pakistan and China and in no way compromise Pakistan’s position on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute.
— provide Pakistan, on concessional terms, weapons systems and defence capabilities required to neutralise the advanced weapons systems and technologies being acquired by India from the US or other sources. If Pakistan capitulates to India’s hegemonic designs, New Delhi’s military capabilities will be increasingly deployed against China rather than, as at present, against Pakistan.
— take conscious measures to promote large Chinese investment in Pakistan including the targeted relocation of manufacturing that is no longer competitive in China.
It is, of course, possible that India’s overtures to China are merely tactical; designed perhaps to enhance its leverage with Washington. But Pakistan should project India’s rebalancing act with Beijing to erode Washington’s romance with India.
The emerging multipolar world offers small and medium-sized states greater room for manoeuvre between the major powers. Pakistan’s diplomacy must gear itself to respond to the challenges and opportunities of a fast-changing, complex world. Unfortunately, our diplomats are hobbled by a political environment of chaos with Pakistani characteristics.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2018