OVER the weekend, Pakistan issued a commemorative coin to celebrate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Islamabad and Beijing. What better way to snub Washington than to literally put our money on the longevity of the Sino-Pak relationship?
But Pakistanis should proceed with caution before swapping one heavy-handed superpower for the other; the bilateral dynamic may not be as different as we anticipate.
China cannot be Pakistan’s reliable Plan B because Sino-Pak bilateral relations are low on Beijing’s priority list. Internal issues dominate China’s security and strategic calculus. First and foremost is the imperative to maintain the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly over political power, which involves the robust handling of domestic developments that threaten regime security. Territorial integrity is essential in this context, which is why dealings with Taiwan and Tibet remain prime concerns.
Equally important is China’s focus on its economic interests. It is well known that most Chinese infrastructure projects in Pakistan — ports, roads, bridges, etc — serve Beijing as much, if not more, than Islamabad. If these investments do not pay off as a result of political entanglements or a worsening security situation, China could explore alternatives.
The foreign policy implications of China’s economic focus are also worth discussing. Owing to China’s phenomenal military and economic growth, Beijing currently pursues what Taylor Fravel, a professor of political science at MIT, describes as a “diplomacy of reassurance”. This entails prioritising policies that allay global anxieties about Chinese ambitions and managing relations with countries such as the US and India in a way that facilitates ‘multipolarisation’. In the long run, Beijing can be expected to flaunt its influence over Islamabad as a basis for improved bilateral engagement with Washington and New Delhi.
As such, if China has a rationale for long-term engagement with Pakistan, it is to avoid instability stemming from violent extremism along its western border, particularly in Xinjiang. Turmoil in that province would disrupt Chinese access to Central Asian energy routes, and interrupt trade that is the mainstay of China’s economy. For that reason, we can expect Beijing to take a stand as firm on terrorist sanctuaries within Pakistan’s borders as Washington.
It is worth remembering that the trigger for the militant blowback against the Pakistani state — the operation against radicals inside Islamabad’s Lal Masjid in July 2007 — was instigated on Chinese, not American, insistence. Beijing also had harsh words for Islamabad in 2008, when Taliban militants kidnapped Long Xiaowei, a Chinese engineer. If Pakistan-based terrorists increasingly affect Chinese citizens and investments, Beijing will be far less forthcoming with praise for the Pakistani army’s counterterrorism efforts than it has been this past week.
China’s long-term impact on the South Asian security calculus also bears scrutiny. Pakistan currently receives significant military support from China, of which the expedited delivery of 50 JF-17 Thunder aircraft is just the latest example. Military aid for the Pakistan Army is seen as a way for Beijing to distract New Delhi from its expanding economic and geopolitical agenda. The strategy is clearly working: India this year has emerged as the world’s largest single purchaser of military equipment.
Unfortunately, China’s power play with India could have devastating consequences for Pakistan because it will further consolidate the regional status quo. Policymakers have long acknowledged that the only way to ensure South Asian peace and prosperity is by normalising relations between Pakistan and India. The chances for boosting trade, cooperating in Afghanistan, launching water- and energy-sharing projects, and eventually addressing disputed borders and transnational threats such as climate change are extremely low if Pakistan and India remain locked in an arms race spurred by Chinese contrivance.
Pakistanis should also surrender the fantasy that Chinese support would help GHQ close the conventional military gap between Pakistan and India. China sees India as an essential trading partner, and will do nothing to jeopardise that economic relationship. Beijing will steer clear of any India-Pakistan conflict, including a proxy face-off in Afghanistan. In fact, Beijing’s dealings with Islamabad will be carefully calibrated in future years to ensure that nothing resembling an anti-India alliance emerges.
Considerations beyond the economic- and security-related also deserve attention. Pakistan’s only gains in the last turbulent decade have been in the context of a democratic transition. An era of coalition politics has been messily, but doggedly, ushered in; the process of devolution to boost provincial autonomy has been initiated; the media has been let loose against a hapless political class; civil society has felt empowered enough to take to the streets; and debates about human rights have made headline news.
China, however, has little appetite for the chaos and contradictions of democracy and may continue to privilege the military’s role in political and economic affairs. More troublingly, it could give our establishment ideas on how to control protest movements, muzzle press and Internet freedom, and sidestep human and labour rights.
For Pakistan to benefit from its close relationship with China, it must articulate and promote its own national interests.
Taking advantage of the fact that China is not prone to giving budgetary support, Pakistan should identify development projects that are in the political and economic interests of both nations, rather than Beijing’s trade agenda alone. Pakistan should also push China to further broaden the relationship beyond military hardware, and emphasise business deals of the sort signed in 2010. By so doing, Pakistan may yet throw off the yoke of superpowers, near or far.
The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC.