The recent handover of operations of Gwadar port in Balochistan to China, this past week, is indicative of the interesting historical dynamic of this bilateral relationship. The Chinese-Pakistani relationship is quite regularly described by Pakistani statesmen as “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey”. These sentiments are quite pleasant at face value, as observers survey the nearly 60-year-old relationship with no real tensions to speak of; yet, the famous cliché, reiterated by all Pakistani leaders since the first Bhutto, paint a rosier picture than is actually the case.
Though Pakistan attempts to portray an unbreakable Sino-Pakistan bond, one based on mutual benefit both economic and military, China’s notorious soft power rise over the last 20 years is laden with strategic overlay, with the scales dramatically tipped in its favour. If this ‘sweeter than honey’ relationship was really so sweet, then how are Pakistan’s economic woes continuing to accelerate so dramatically, while China successfully navigates through the global economic downturn?
China may not be the all-weather neighbour Pakistan so eagerly boasts about. Over the last 60 years, China’s hand in Pakistan has been meticulously calculated, with each endeavour ensuring Chinese long-term interests in every aspect of foreign relations, from diplomacy and aid to economics and energy. Closer inspection of China-Pakistan relations reveals a weaker than expected link between the two republics, illustrating China’s impressively opportunistic policies, using Pakistan to secure its regional and global stronghold.
Pakistan’s strategic location has made it a convenient and inexpensive base for China to establish its regional foothold, with particular regard to India and the Middle East. Nestled at the helm of the Gulf, Pakistan has proven to be a central routing point between the Middle East and East Asia, acting as the sole supply route for oil in and out of the Middle East and Central Asia. Thus, China’s initial interest in Gwadar resulted in an offer to provide 80 per cent of the labour and funding for the development of its deep-water port. Development of Pakistani infrastructure was of secondary importance to the geopolitical relevance of the site. The port offers China access to the Strait of Hormuz, the supply route for 40 per cent of the world’s oil, allowing for China’s Xinjiang province to become a player on the world energy market, as the province is rich in oil and natural gas, and was landlocked before the opening of the port.
But the Sino-Pakistan saga dates back even further to 1950, when Pakistan was one of the first countries in the international community to recognise the People’s Republic of China. Following that, a border dispute between India and China in 1962 not only laid the framework for uneasy relations in the years to follow, it was the catalyst for China’s original policy pivot towards Pakistan. The goal was to balance India militarily, as to avoid another costly encounter with it, and thus, began the armament to Pakistan.
China’s intense military aid to Pakistan, though quite helpful in Pakistan’s initial post-Partition military build-up, was quite clearly intended to keep India at bay. Keeping India preoccupied with a potential Pakistani threat, threw it off the Chinese scent of regional ascension.
Had Pakistan’s political well-being been a stronger driver of Chinese policy, then perhaps, we would have witnessed deeper support during the 1971 war, which ultimately resulted in the establishment of Bangladesh. China displayed little interest in stepping in to serve its oldest ally from fragmentation. In fact, neutrality has fared well for China, as it has been able to forge a civil relationship with India, while still keeping Pakistan on the hook, maintaining its status as “a neighbour and friend to both countries”.
It seems that Chinese activity in Pakistan is less about a stronger than steel friendship and more about a string of pearls.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 28th, 2013.
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