Hype aside, a seminal shift is taking place in Pakistan’s strategic orientation, as it dramatically enhances its cooperation with China in the economic, political and defence areas. With the US thinning its presence in Afghanistan and the region, China’s footprint will be fast increasing. The projected investment of $45 billion in various projects — spread over 10 to 15 years — that China is pledging is a manifestation of its expanding interest in Pakistan. For China, this would be the biggest investment it has made in any country, if it were to fully materialise. China’s investments are in line with its overall political and strategic goals, and are a demonstration of its confidence in Pakistan’s future.
These investments, if properly executed, could be transformational. Pakistan’s greatest weakness is its dilapidated infrastructure. China’s investment aims at improving infrastructure, opening up of the neglected province of Balochistan and development of Gwadar as a strategic and commercial port. This in turn is likely to increase China’s and Pakistan’s presence in the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. The economic corridor will open up new business opportunities for both countries. Pakistan’s close alignment with China should partially contribute to countervailing India’s growing economic and military power.
Acquisition of eight Chinese submarines will strengthen Pakistan’s maritime capability in anti-submarine, anti-surface warfare, intelligence-gathering and strategic deterrence, and play an important role in the defence of the Gwadar and Karachi ports. This would lead to greater cooperation with the Chinese, as compatibility of equipment facilitates cooperation, particularly in the maritime area. The development of an economic corridor linking Gwadar will obviously increase the presence of the Chinese fleet in the region. Gains for China include opening up of the relatively less developed western region that will benefit from shorter access to the sea. China’s potential of forward deployment of its naval assets in the Gwadar and Karachi ports seems to be a cause of anxiety for the Indians. To allay India’s possible concerns as well as that of the West, Beijing has been trying to emphasise that its interests are essentially economic and commercial. Moreover, Gwadar-related infrastructure will take a few years to develop and as China has emphasised, its maritime deployment is not conceived to be offensive.
Pakistan’s substantial cooperation with China in the form of the “strategic framework” agreed for the next 10 years should lead to economic development and stability. At the same time, if these projects are implemented faithfully as planned, they could lead to greater integration of Pakistan’s natural resources and markets with the larger Chinese and global economy. This will require highly deft handling because experience teaches us that we are good at signing agreements but casual in implementing them. Hopefully, this will not recur as the entire credibility of Nawaz Sharif’s leadership and that of his party hinges on the turnaround of Pakistan’s economy in which successful completion of these projects will be a major component. If Pakistan loses this opportunity to lift its economy at such a critical juncture, then it will not be able to sustain the gains that the military has made in counterinsurgency operations in Fata.
China’s interest in Afghanistan appears to be increasing as US forces withdraw from the region. Initially, its involvement in Afghanistan was confined to economic activity and securing strategic materials, such as copper, iron, etc. The US and other Western countries have been complaining that China was taking undue advantage of the security umbrella provided by Nato and Isaf. They wanted it not only to be a consumer but also a provider of security. Now that the US and Nato are pulling out of Afghanistan, China is showing greater willingness to be more proactive in helping maintain the region’s security. Moreover, it realises that Afghanistan’s stability will have a positive impact on the restive Xinjiang province. China’s move to engage with the Taliban leadership and play a more proactive role in Afghanistan should be viewed in this backdrop.
What we are also witnessing is that China is projecting its soft power in our region through economic prowess and sophisticated diplomacy. Another element of China’s soft power that is less talked about is its political stability, notwithstanding its one-party rule. As far as the global projection of hard power is concerned, it will defer that until it has established an advanced and more sophisticated industrial and technological base that can fully support its own blue water navy and a state-of-the-art air force.
The Pakistani leadership should always keep in mind that as China’s footprint in global affairs rise, it would develop more nuanced policies towards Pakistan. While we can expect China to remain a solid and reliable ally, from our side we have to be sensitive to its concern about the activities of militant groups, particularly those of the Uzbekistan Islamic Movement and its allied groups.
Beijing is most sensitive to any disturbance in the Xinjiang province that has suffered turbulence over years. It has zero tolerance for any militancy emanating from Pakistan’s territory. The Turkic Uighurs have rioted against Beijing and seek more autonomy and independence. Some of their rebel groups belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement have found sanctuary in our tribal belt. But Pakistan has since taken several measures to curb their activities and yet the problem persists, albeit in a less serious manner.
China’s new place in the world and especially in the region has positive implications for Pakistan, provided our security situation normalises and we are able to build an infrastructure that can absorb and properly utilise the investments that it is making. China features prominently in Pakistan’s grand strategy but to really benefit from it, we will require to put in continuous effort at fulfilling our side of the bargain. For Pakistan, this is a historic opportunity to benefit from its partnership with China. Much would, however, depend on our ability to transform the state by prudently managing the economic resources and political goodwill being extended to it.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 22nd, 2015.