The United States assisted Pakistan in the past and China is now our benefactor, but the largesse from both has come in different ways and not without a cost. For both these global powers we have contributed and facilitated their strategic and political goals. We have benefited from these alignments but there is always a price one has to pay to be close to a major power.
The statement by a senior US diplomat, Alice Wells, that CPEC will push Pakistan into a serious debt burden has invited a strong response from the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan. He has strongly defended the Pakistan-China relationship and termed it as mutually beneficial. Pakistan too has reiterated the value of its sterling relations with China.
Before engaging in the merits and demerits of these two different sources of assistance, we need to see what prompted Wells to make a statement at this time. Should we assume that Washington after all has come to realise Pakistan’s importance, and its frustration stems from the reality that it is beholden to China. Consequently, it has reduced leverage over the country. There could be other considerations as well. CPEC is China’s flagship project. Its success would have far-reaching impact on China’s global influence. Especially as it spreads the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that includes 138 countries with a population of nearly 4.6 billion people.
The review of Pakistan by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is due in February 2020 — something that gives the US additional leverage to press on CPEC. Fortunately, due to China, Turkey and Malaysia’s support in the FATF, Pakistan would be able to prevent India from promoting it into the black list.
While assessing the US and China’s contribution toward Pakistan, we have to see what price the country has paid in return.
In supporting the US, as a member of CENTO and SEATO against the erstwhile Soviet Union, Pakistan received substantial military aid. We received the M-series tanks, M113 Armored Personnel Carriers, anti-tank weapons, artillery guns and howitzers, military vehicles, communication equipment, etc. The entire 1st Armoured Division and part of the 6th Armoured Division were equipped with American equipment which apart from the bravery and sacrifices of our armed forces contributed significantly to warding off Indian aggression in the 1965 War. The 1971 War led to the unfortunate parting of East Pakistan that had less to do with equipment and more with the disastrous policy pursued by Pakistan’s military government at that time.
The Americans also built the Kharian Cantonment — a well-planned garrison that has ample living accommodation, workshops, hospital and wide roads that clearly stand out even today.
The Mangla and Tarbela dams that are the life-blood of Pakistan’s economy and source of water and power generation, although funded by the World Bank, were only possible due to American support.
Equally useful were the military training programmes and familiarisation courses. The US contribution to the education sector has been significant.
The US were very restrictive in transferring technology except for equipment that was reaching obsolescence. They established several modern repair and maintenance facilities for the army and the other two services. For F-16 they established the maintenance facility, which later the PAF expanded and raised to an admirably higher level. The Pakistan Navy has American helicopters and weapons systems in its inventory and benefits from joint exercises with the US Combined Task Force.
However, when Washington thought Pakistan’s policies were no more subservient to theirs, they would terminate assistance and impose sanctions. Lately, since the strategic rivalry between the US and China has intensified and Pakistan’s Afghan policy does not always conform to Washington’s dictates, it has stopped all aid. Over the years regional realignments have distanced Pakistan from the US. As Washington’s strategic relationship with India gets stronger, Pakistan is perceived to be in the Chinese camp. Despite these barriers, Pakistan aims at developing a mutually beneficial relationship with the US, and feels its strong relations with China should not stand in the way.
China has been Pakistan’s steadfast ally and there is a high degree of mutual trust at all levels. China has helped Pakistan build a strong defence manufacturing capability. China has contributed significantly to expanding and providing depth to the Pakistan Ordnance Factories, Heavy Mechanical Complex, and Aeronautical Complex. Besides supplying us with weapons and equipment they have in majority of the cases provided complete know-how and appropriate machinery on soft terms.
The most significant contribution has been in the field of civil nuclear technology. They have set up nuclear power plants to meet our energy needs. Their contribution to missile technology has been extremely useful. China’s industrial and technological capability has been on the rise and Pakistan will be a beneficiary of it.
Interestingly, China benefited from Pakistan’s experience and understanding of weapons and systems of Western origin. Now it has reached a stage where in the next 10 years or so it would be fairly close to catching up with the US in critical areas of defence manufacturing.
CPEC has brought in a qualitative change in the relationship between the two countries. In the first phase, Chinese projects focused on improving the infrastructure and energy production. In the recently launched second phase of CPEC, the focus will be on agriculture, poverty alleviation and industrial cooperation.
Doubts have been raised about the pricing of certain projects but the Chinese leadership has been amenable to suggestions.
More significantly, China supports Pakistan at the UNSC and all major international forums. It stands as a bulwark against India’s attempts to isolate Pakistan. It advised restraint during the recent India-Pakistan stand-off and supports us on the Kashmir question. Pakistan too has sided unfailingly with China even if it meant compromising on some controversial issues of human rights.
In the present complex world it would be in Pakistan’s national interest that while maintaining strong ties with China it should build bridges with the US. It did so in the past and can do so in the future.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 27th, 2019.