During his meeting with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing on May 18, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani reaffirmed Pakistan’s ‘all-weather’ friendship with the country. The warmth was the same as that always observed in the past, with the Chinese prime minister weighing in on the Pakistani side while asking the US to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty. He added that the “the Americans had acknowledged Pakistan’s contributions to the war on terror” and had assured him that the US would take steps to improve relations with Pakistan.
New agreements in the economic field were signed and the defence sector was not ignored either. Pakistan inducted a new bunch of high-tech Chinese warplanes into its air force at a time when the US Congress seems to be in two minds about providing financial assistance to Pakistan at current levels. In Pakistan, too, lower-echelon politicians have been calling for breaking off relations with the US and relying more completely on China, guided in large part by their anti-US and anti-India outlook.
While China’s support to Pakistan at this time is welcome, it should be seen through the prism of realism. This would suggest that the Chinese would not, in the least, be inclined to enter Pakistan’s isolationist habit of sabre-rattling against, what large sections of the Pakistani media calls, a ‘US-India-Israel axis’. Mr Wen praised Mr Gilani’s decision to accept India’s invitation to watch the cricket world cup semi-final in Mohali and said this would help improve relations between the two neighbours.
The truth is that Mr Gilani’s visit may well have little to do with the current wrinkle in Pakistan-US relations, after the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad (for starters, such visits are usually planned well in advance). Pakistan-China relations need to develop further from their current level simply because their territorial contiguity adds new logistic dimension. If the economic dimension is emphasised, no one need object. Because of Pakistan’s confrontationist policy with India, New Delhi frequently equates Chinese cooperation with Pakistan as being hostile to India. However, what if China uses a South Asian route for its goods to be shipped to the rest of the world, or what of the possibility that it could use Pakistani territory to trade with India?
China has helped Pakistan in key areas, and some of this, like with Chashma, has not been to the liking of the US and its western allies; but ‘protestations’ in this regard have been muted because rules have been violated (by the US itself) with regard to India too. China has built the Karakoram Highway and Gwadar is ready but the further development of roads linking it with other regions has been stymied by terrorism — Chinese engineers have been killed both in the tribal areas and Balochistan by local terrorists. Instability and fluctuations of regional relationships have delayed the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, which was to be linked to the two high-growth, energy-starved states in the region: India and China. Baloch insurgents have shown such a level of professional efficiency in blowing up gas pipelines in Pakistan that it is difficult to imagine any project coming to fruition. As a result, a completed Gwadar port waits for Pakistan to regain internal normalcy.
Pakistan has to think ‘trade-first’ like China, to get out of its bind with terrorism. There is a great gap of learning from good neighbour China, while the army and, equally warmongering, civilian leaders think of extracting military advantage from China to complete Pakistan’s unfinished wars. Instead of fighting the next war with India over water, Pakistan needs internal consensus on building more and bigger water reservoirs with Chinese help. That such plans are afoot is a good augury. The Chinese might also reset our direction by helping us concentrate more on our agriculture and increase our capacity to export food to China’s high-growth economy in the coming days. If we want to move even closer to the future superpower, we need to understand the Chinese mind more effectively, not only as a blindfolded ally against India and the US willing to back our madcap ambition of fighting interstate wars while intra-state conflict threatens to undo Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 20th, 2011.