Pakistan has always been an issue between China and the USA. During the cold war all the three formed a tri-lateral alliance to counter the Soviet Union. Afghanistan was their frontline state leading to the Taliban rule in Kabul with some Al Qaeda assistance thrown in. “9/11” terrorist (Al Qaeda) attack on the USA changed all that. Pakistan became the breeding ground for international terrorism, the US outsted the Taliban rule in Kabul, and Pakistan was given the choice of “with us or against us” by US President George W. Bush.
Pakistan reluctantly agreed to the “with us”, but the “against us” which was being quietly executed by the Pakistani army and the ISI. It was so far so good for China, but the latest ultimatum from the White House to Pakistan i.e. actually to the Pakistani army and the ISI to rid the country of the Taliban or US military may enter Pakistan’s soil, brought the Pakistani military establishment to obey US orders. This has raised concerns in China whose leaders feel their national interests in the region may come under challenge.
The Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Luo Zhaohui called on opposition leader and PML (N) Chief Nawaz Sharif on May 04 in Raiwind, the Sharifs’ ancestral home. A Nawaz spokesman told the media that Ambassador Luo conveyed the view that China thinks its aid to Pakistan should be bilateral without any strings or conditionalities attached, unlike the “Friends of Pakistan” club which attached conditionalities on the success of counter-terrorism initiative by the Pakistani forces. In their recent meeting in Tokyo the “Friends of Pakistan” club pledged $5.5 billion. Ambassador Luo also slipped in that Chinese companies in Pakistan were facing discriminatory treatment compared to western companies.
Ambassador Luo Zhaohui’s feelers to Nawaz Sharif were unmistakable. The PPP led government in Pakistan was succumbing too much to the USA, putting at peril Pakistan’s sovereignty, security and independence. China has been Pakistan’s “all weather” friend, and as Luo told Mia Nawaz, China would stand by Pakistan “through thick and thin”. In spite of this, Luo conveyed, Chinese companies were being discriminated against by the new dispensation in Pakistan in favour of companies of countries which were providing conditional aid to Pakistan.
Nawaz Sharif, today, enjoys huge popularity in Pakistan. Many Pakistani feel that the US counter-terrorism actions in Pakistan has exacerbated the problem and was taking Islamabad for a cheap ride. In contrast, there is a much greater support for China among the people. Nawaz has been close to China, while the US suspects his links with rightist Islamic organizations. Zardari and his government are seen as stooges of the US, and that Zardari will have to bow to US pressures as he was propped up by Washington. Zardari made three visits to China after he took over as President of Pakistan, but failed to get total acceptance. In one of his visits , he could not meet even a single Chinese Central leader. Beijing is keeping its Nawaz Sharif option, warm.
Almost simultaneously with the Nawaz – Luo meeting, the Chinese official media came out with two assessments which convey that Pakistan had to take military action against the militants, under American duress, and much against their own judgement for a lesser confrontational route.
A commentary in the government news agency, the Xinhua (May 04) saw taking advantage of the Pakistani government and the Swat Taliban agreement’s failure, the US raised the rhetoric bar warning that the situation will go out of control if the advance of the militants on Islamabad was not reversed. More significantly, the Xinhua commentary said that whether under Musharraf or Zardari, Pakistan failed to resolve the contradiction between the US war on terror vis-à-vis safeguarding its sovereignty, security and economic development. In brief the commentary, approved or directed usually at the CCP politbureau level, conveyed that under threatening US pressures Pakistan had to jettison such peace deals in 2005 and 2006 in South and North Wazirstan respectively.
Quoting Pakistani military spokesman Maj.Gen. Abbas, the commentary conveyed that the Pakistanis understood their own situation better and could resolve their problems their own way, and the Pakistan army was capable of dealing with the Taliban. It alleged that under US pressure, the Pakistani army attacks against the militants may have done more harm than good to the country’s stability, and could put the Pakistan state under US control.
Another commentary (May 06) by the PLA think tank Centre for International and Strategic Studies (CISS) alleged that Zardari’s decision to attack the Taliban as he prepared for the summit in Washington was to placate the Americans. It averred that the US pressure was putting Pakistanis against Pakistanis, as the Taliban are Pashtuns and a large section of the Pakistani army is drawn from the Pashtuns. Refugees fleeing the troubled region say Pakistani army guns were pointed against them rather than the Taliban, the commentary said. By briefly mentioning the “Kashmir flash point”, and that the Pak army was trained for war against India, the writing tried to suggest Pakistan should not relocate troops on the Indian border to fight the militants. This commentary was apparently a PLA internal assessment and only a small part of it was published by the CISS.
Although not openly articulated yet, China would be highly concerned over repeated US warnings that Pakistan’s nuclear assets could fall into the hands of the terrorists. The US has been providing $ 100 million a year to Pakistan to safeguard its military nuclear assets and establishment. It is not really known how much of this money is going for the purpose it is meant. But the fact is that the Americans have a fairly good idea of Pakistan’s nuclear establishment and assets and could secure these of the contingency arose.
This is not good news for China. For one, such an eventuality would expose China’s on going clandestine nuclear assistance to Pakistan. Equally importantly if not more, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could be neutralized taking off a great pressure from India. China is not sure how the US would behave on the NPT implementation since it gave India a special door to enter into the nuclear deal without joining the NPT. In the over all sense, China calculates a US control over Pakistan, and given the new Indo-US partnership relations and military co-operation, Beijing’s hub of anti-India war of attrition may get neutralized. If that happened, China’s “string of pearls” strategy to encircle India may not work.
Simultaneously, a US hold on Pakistan would give space to Washington to control China’s strategy in Pakistan including the Gwadar Port built by China and the Karakoram highway, the Pak-China road link. On the other hand, it would allow the USA much greater freedom to cultivate its strategies in Central Asia through Pakistan and Afghanistan to China’s strategic and security disadvantage.
These perceptions of China may not be of immediate implementation by the US. But it is clear that Pakistan has again emerged as one of Washington’s priority with terrorism first. But Central Asia is undoubtedly an US strategic perspective. China may count on Russia and the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) to keep the Americans, out of Central Asia. But typically, Beijing would try to persuade the SCO to do the work on their behalf, while pursuing relations with the US on different levels. At the end of it, China’s overwhelming position in Central Asia would be challenged.
A new US-China competition in the region is visible and China may not be in a controlling position. India must be cognizant of those intricate and multifarious developments. Planning ahead is always wise instead of just patchwork responses to situations.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)