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China-Pakistan Ties: Is Beijing Looking Beyond Musharraf?

Is China preparing itself to deal with a Pakistan without Musharraf? Judging from the official stand, the question may lack substance, but it assumes some credibility when the latest pronouncements by authoritative think tanks and media analysts (all in Chinese language) are subjected to a close scrutiny.

No doubt, China’s statement[1], first one to be noticed officially since the assassination of Bhutto, that Pakistan will be able to overcome ‘temporary’ difficulties under the ‘leadership of President Musharraf and his Government’, has given a firm indication to Beijing’s current intention at government level not to review its support to the beleaguered Musharraf. On the other hand, the Chinese scholars, known for their assigned roles to give foreign policy inputs to the authorities, appear to be gradually shifting their positions now on the question of Musharraf’s leadership – from a line reposing complete confidence prior to assassination to that reflecting a lack of trust in the post-Bhutto period. To cite notable instances, a prominent Party journal[2] , at the time of re-election of Musharraf as civilian President, had described Pakistan as having entered a ‘new Musharraf era’, giving credit to the leader’s ‘extraordinary’ personality to lead the country at a ‘special’ period which was marked by a weakening of his power, especially since the July 2007 Lal Masjid incident. As against this, a prominent academician has argued very recently that the ‘destiny of one person’ should not decide the political system in Pakistan, meaning thereby that the remedy lies in political institutionalisation.[3] What follows is a detailed examination of the views emanating of late from the Chinese scholars.

“China cannot abandon its support to Musharraf”, has been the key point made in an assessment of an influential think-tank.[4] Its three-part article, has declared at the same time that Beijing should pay close attention towards the developing situation in Pakistan, so as to avoid any adverse fall out regarding China’s economic and political interests in that country. It rejected any chance of Bhutto’s assassination affecting China-Pakistan relations, but cautioned “if Benazir’s death indirectly results in the downfall of Musharraf, the arising uncertain factors will have a deep and long-ranging impact on the bilateral ties”. China should therefore follow “a pragmatic diplomacy” towards Pakistan.

Several other Chinese evaluations have revealed that in general, there exist definite apprehensions in the minds of scholars about the future political stability in Pakistan. Elaborating what has been said earlier, the same expert has opined that in leading Pakistan to come out of the current impasse, Musharraf faces a challenge of decisive nature – how to meet the people’s expectations for a political system freeing Pakistan from the ‘destiny of one person’.[5] “After Bhutto’s death, the disorder in Pakistan will no doubt intensify due to the existing contradictions within the country- between religion and tradition, military and civil society, judiciary and government, the ruling party and the opposition and federal elements and local forces”, observed another article.[6] Some other comments have noted with alarm the increasing strength of extremists in Pakistan and regrouping of Taliban forces in the borders, at a time when Pakistan is facing a key moment of transition from a military to democratic rule[7] .

Some fears expressed by Chinese academicians have had no precedence and can thus be considered highly significant. Most notably, a scholar has not hesitated to express concerns over the possibility of nuclear weapons in Pakistan falling into wrong hands.[8] Also important could be the views, not noticed before, of another expert, discovering motives behind Musharraf’s friendship with China – for ‘restricting ’ or ‘neutralising ’ the Indian and American influences.[9]

The Chinese analysts have also found that Musharraf will come more and more under Western pressure, particularly in the matter of international investigation into Bhutto’s death.[10] They have in addition pointed out that Bhutto’s death needs to be examined along with the growing Al Qaeda power, the tense Middle East situation, volatile international oil market and decline in American stocks and it can therefore be concluded that the prevailing disorder in Pakistan could impinge seriously on the international situation.[11]

Analysing the implications of Bhutto’s death for Pakistan’s relations with China, India and the US, the Chinese scholars have assessed that on the basis of his fears about the continuing instability internally, Musharraf would give priority to relations with China, though the same would lead to the US dissatisfaction. On the part of Washington, it may find beneficial if the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), inheriting the pro-US policies of Bhutto, comes to power after elections. The Republicans in the US would also exploit Bhutto’s death to play the ‘terrorism card’ for the purpose of winning support in the forthcoming presidential elections. On the likely impact on India, the experts have said that New Delhi should be very much worried about the links between Pakistan’s fundamentalists and military, especially Pakistan Army’s lack of power to prevent extremist elements from launching bloody attacks.[12] As per other opinions, India-Pakistan peace process will stagnate in the aftermath of Bhutto’s death.[13]

Musharraf or no Musharraf, Pakistan will always remain strategically important for China. An unstable Pakistan will be against Beijing’s interests. China, at the same time, is in no position to control the internal situation in Pakistan and hence its concerns, being expressed through its scholars, signalling the need for policy options for Beijing. The academic opinion on the likely negative impact on China, if Musharraf goes, would mean that alarm bells have started ringing in that country concerning Beijing-Islamabad ties. The view in China that the situation in Pakistan would continue to be uncertain for some time, has introduced a new element to the bilateral relations of the two nations. This may even compel Beijing to have a second look at its present South Asia policy. That could be in the form of further cementing ties with a stable India. As a significant development, China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, in the latest issue of the Party organ “ Qiu Shi”, has warmly referred to India’s rise, with no mention at all of Pakistan. The symbolic importance of the same cannot be minimised. New Delhi should leverage such a climate for speeding up solutions to the outstanding bilateral issues with Beijing, like that concerning the boundary.

(The writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies. Email: dsrajan@gmail.com)

Footnotes

[1]. Telephonic talk between Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and his Pakistani counterpart Inamul Haq, January 5, 2008, Xinhua 6 January 2008. [2]. “Study Times”(Chinese), the organ of the Central Party School,Beijing, 17 December 2007. [3]. Professor Ye Hailin, International Herald Monior, Beijing, 3 January 2008. [4]. China International Institute for Strategic Studies, Beijing, 3 January 2008. Its website www.chinaiiss.org, was established in October 2002, with the stated aim of contributing to research on the PRC’s international strategy. The head of the site is “Zhongguo Zhan Lue or China Strategy”, apparently a pseudonym for a high level cadre. The site’s “ Experts Group” has one Li Peng as member. Further check is necessary on whether this person is the former Chinese Premier Li Peng. [5]. As in No.3 [6]. China Youth Daily, 4 January 2008. [7]. ibid [8]. ibid. Also, Xinhua (Chinese, 29 December 2007) [9]. As in No.4 [10]. As in No.3 [11]. China Youth Daily, 4 January 2008. [12]. As in No.4 [13]. Xinhua (Chinese), 29 December 2007

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