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China's New Great Game: Pakistan Eager to Sell Out By Bhaskar Roy

C3S Paper No. 0049/ 2015

Bhaskar Roy

Eager to counter US President Barack Obama attending the Indian Republic Day parade (January 26) as the chief guest, Pakistan jumped the gun announcing that Chinese President Xi Jinping would be the chief guest at Pakistan’s National Day parade on March 23. The Pakistani foreign office, which thinks and speaks more on  the lines of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) text, where India is concerned, exposed their utter ignorance of larger regional and global issues, especially that of their ‘iron friend’ China.

The Pakistani announcement on the Chinese President’s supposed visit without getting concurrence from Beijing smacked of Islamabad taking Beijing for granted. It projected that China was eager to counter the growing US relationship with India and, thereby, US influence in South Asia. Further, the Pakistani statement suggested the tail was wagging the dog.

Islamabad was frustrated that Barack Obama did not mention Pakistan even once in his speeches in India, indicating thereby that in American foreign policy the hyphenating of India and Pakistan has ceased to play. Pakistan is afraid that it is beginning to be ignored to the point of irrelevance and its days of using terrorism to attract global attention (and aid) are getting over.

In this context, an article in the Chinese communist party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily’s (February 11) overseas edition, makes interesting reading. To note, the article was meant for maximum dissemination internationally and its message to Pakistan was loud and clear.

The article clarified that last year Xi Jinping had to cancel his visit to Pakistan (when Xi visited India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives) because of the unstable political situation there, but stated it that the decision had no negative impact on their bilateral relations. It conveyed that Xi would visit Pakistan “as soon as possible”.

Almost simultaneously, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi who was in Pakistan ostensibly to prepare for Xi Jinping’s visit, announced (Feb.12) that Xi would visit “later in the year”.

The People’s Daily persuasively but emphatically explained that China was not playing a Pakistan sponsored “zero sum” game. It had its interest with India and advised Pakistan not to open a broadside against India.

The article encapsulated China’s policy as follows: Pakistan would play an important role in China’s strategic vision of economic corridors, the Silk Routes and Maritime Silk Road, otherwise known as “One Belt One Road” policy, combating terrorism, and development for all. Beijing is pushing the formulation that development ensures security rather thatn peace ensures security and development.

In an article “China’s Big plans for Pakistan National Interest – And why India should be concerned” (Dec. 10, 2014 The National Interest Magazine), eminent China expert Gordon G. Chang made a comprehensive analysis, pointing out how Pakistan is becoming “Beijing’s newest colony”. The evidence has been staring us in the face. Last November Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inaugurated a section of the Hazara Motorway which will connect Islamabad to China through the Karakoram Highway; it will be completed in two years, with China picking up the $ 297 million bill.

This is part of the Pakistan – China Economic corridor, an arterial corridor connecting China, (through the India claimed Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) to the Gwadar deep sea port on the Baluchistan coast. The Gwadar port was built by Chinese engineers and workers, and financed by China. Pakistan has designated it as a defence establishment, but strategic analysts have for long been viewing the Gwadar port as a potential Chinese naval base.

The economic aspect of this corridor is also very strong. The Chinese plan to carry oil from Gwadar port through a pipeline to South-West China. It was to build a an oil refinery in Gwadar but the project was shelved due to local Balochi resistance.

Along the corridor, however, a large number of projects are planned and paid for by the Chinese, including Special economic Zones (SEZs). The over-capacity built by the Chinese will now be expended in Pakistan – a win-win situation for China. Pakistani leaders believe that this is a win-win situation for them too, since all the expenditure will be borne by China.  Basically, Pakistan is well on the way to be mortgaged to China.

This corridor has serious security implications for India. Pakistan has already ceded an area of over five thousand square miles of disputed Pak territory to China in a 1963 agreement. China is using its military engineering squads to construct infrastructure in the area, counter to its stated position in other places that disputed areas cannot be developed by a third party. This is a strategic area bordering India in Kashmir and Chinese troops would be able to roll down easily in case of a conflict.

Chinese military supply can be transferred more expeditiously and safely to Pakistan through this corridor if necessary. During India’s Operation Parakram in response to the Pakistani terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, China requisitioned arms and ammunition from its military formations for Pakistan.

China is interested in a stable and friendly Afghanistan. A troubled and terrorism infested Afghanistan was serious security threat to China with Uighur separatists from Xinjiang being trained on Afghan soil, including by the ISI.

Landlocked Afghanistan, strategically located and forming a gateway to Central Asia, is very important to China both economically and strategically, and is a staging post for China’s Silk Routes (Beltway) to Central Asia.  While in Pakistan (Feb. 11) Wang Yi openly declared China’s intention to support peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and the government in Kabul. With the US retreating, it was obvious that China would move in.

Again, Pakistan is a major player in China’s Afghanistan strategy, having hosted the Afghan Taliban after the Russians were driven out of Afghanistan. Pakistan was also one of two countries which recognized the Taliban government in Kabul.

Here on, Pakistan is unlikely to have a free hand in Afghan affairs. Wang added that he had a strong sense that Pakistan would act as a constructive partner in resolving the Afghan issue. Wang Yi’s statement came obviously after his discussion with the Pakistani leaders in Islamabad, including with the Pakistani army. Making such a statement on Pakistan’s soil appears almost like a directive. It will have to be seen what role the ISI plays. With their role in Afghanistan channelized in a particular direction, and a restrictive hand on adventurism against India, the political importance of the Pakistani army may decline, and its corporate nature dented.

India has suffered a set back in Afghanistan. The new Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani appears to have opted for a greater Pakistan-China role. India dithered in some areas, specially military supplies. The US will continue to play an important role; the key to international financial assistance, which Afghanistan needs directly, is in Washington’s hands.

It will have to be seen how far the US carries India in Afghanistan on the basis of its strategic partner relationship and the various pronouncements that President Obama made during his visit to New Delhi in January. Nothing comes without a price. That brings us to the Iran issue where the US and India are not really in sync. But strategic cooperation is not a narrow band and India will have to play its cards very astutely.

Although the “One Belt One Road” strategy is generally attributed to Xi Jinping, it was being developed for over a decade and more. In the 1990s official positions were taken to build a railway from the Chinese coast to Antwerp in Europe through Kazakhstan and other countries. It must be remembered no Chinese major policy is formulated overnight. The “One Belt One Road” policy has been tested out through official statements and articles by experts in the official Chinese media.

The old Silk Belt comprising ancient trade routes, (first used during the Han dynasty- 206 BC- 220 AD) connecting China to Europe, is being revived. (See Map) 

See map

Source: Wikipedia

Today, China has much to export and import, and vitalize its western region. In the current global sense China’s interest in the “Silk Roads” is backed by strong economic and strategic reasons.

China has been repeatedly and emphatically stating that their strategy is not a reaction to Barack Obama’s Pivot to Asia. True, the Chinese concept is much older. But such a wide and deep strategy, backed by influence and money can be used effectively in a variety of directions.

In their usual flowery and sanctimonious propaganda, the Chinese have put forth a “win-win” situation for all. Their key statement is, “If there is development, there will be peace”. The contrary however, is also true: “If there is peace, there will be development”. The Chinese concept of peace entails submitting to Chinese demands including on territory. And, thereupon, with Beijing’s opaque military policy which borders on the offensive at times as India has experienced, peace may be difficult to come by.

China recently operationalized its Silk Road fund of $40 billion, to connect countries from Asia-Pacific/South East Asia, to South Asia and beyond by land and sea.

The Maritime Silk Road (MSR) concept, which started from mid-1995, was probed at several strategic levels, with a view to building ports and infrastructure in the smaller Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) countries, supplemented by military aid. For ruling groups in small countries military power is an important instrument. In the initial stages this was to encircle India – the well discussed ‘string of pearls’ theory.

With growing military and financial power the strategy has emerged into a much larger envelope, enclosing Asia and parts of Africa, and a dominant position in the Indian Ocean.

Sri Lanka is China’s first Indian Ocean post. Although Colombo cannot be compared to Pakistan, there have been fissures between New Delhi and Colombo, some of which can be blamed on Indian policies. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government took an anti-India stand and invited China in. Dudley Senanayake, a two-time prime minister of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) asked (Feb. 1965) Prime minister Mrs. Banderanaike, whether the Trincomalee port was given to China, in which case the next India-China war would be fought in Ceylon, and Ceylon stood to be occupied by the Chinese as Tibet was. The Hambantota container terminal and port, Colombo deep water port, roads and other infrastructure projects were built by China, along with military aid to fight the LTTE. The quiet visits of two Chinese submarines to Sri Lanka in recent months have changed the strategic picture.

China has extended itself to the Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles, where port constructions are high on the agenda. According to Chinese military experts, these ports including in Sri Lanka can be converted into bases in due course.

The Indian government was aware of China’s Indian Ocean strategy since early 2000, but paid little heed. The aim was to appease China and the mantra was ‘watch China, but do not provoke (read displease) China’.

It is significant that under China’s leadership an MOU was signed in Beijing to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to be located in Beijing. India is among the  group of 21 countries that signed on.

The MOU specified $100 billion as the authorized capital of the AIIB and the initial authorized capital is expected to be around $ 50 billion (Oct. 24, 2014, Xinhua). The bank will be an inter – governmental regional development institution in Asia. The Articles of Agreement are expected to be signed by the end of 2015 by the founding members.

Most, if not all, the countries involved are bending towards China for investments and infrastructure construction. India is going overboard in its enthusiasm, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. China has overcapacity in steel and cement, and many workers freed after the slowdown in growth.

Declaring intentions publicly is one thing but arriving at agreements/contracts with Chinese companies is something quite different. An influx of construction materials can seriously affect the growth of Indian industries, especially those producing heavy construction material, as well as the labour market.

The Indian government must carefully consider the specific areas which will be opened to Chinese companies. Ports, airports, telecommunications and computer applications are strategic areas all tied to the defence establishment of India. It is important at this juncture to examine the experiences of the US, and Western European countries which have heavy Chinese business. Indian intelligence agencies must be involved in the decisions of the government of India.

This does not mean we should shut the door to the Chinese but tread carefully.

The maritime Silk Road policy needs to be examined with acuteness. Pressure form Beijing will soon be felt by New Delhi to sign on the Bangladesh, China, Indian and Myanmar (BCIM) connectivity, which will provide China an overland route to the Bay of Bengal (and Indian Ocean). There are moves in Bangladesh to bring in China to construct a deep sea port in Sonadia, much like Gwadar in Pakistan.

How does all these match up to India’s Look East or Act East policy? India has done little till now towards road connectivity with Myanmar and Thailand.

The enormity of the “One Belt One Road” can be visualized while Pakistan is a lynch pin in this strategy. Sri Lanka is being pushed on the Maritime road; Bangladesh may fall in and there will be a tussle over the Maldives. Narendra Modi’s decision to visit Sri Lanka, and other Indian Ocean countries has not come too soon.

Xi Jinping will be in the US on a state visit in September at the invitation of Barack Obama. Xi will be carrying with him the offer of ‘new type of relations between major powers’, and the US is unlikely to reject it. The soft cold war between China and the US will continue. China is making some amendments towards lowering the temperature with Japan and other US interests in that region.

A subtle change in China’s foreign policy is discernable. Of course, it does not intend to replace the US in taking a leading role in hot areas like Ukraine. But it is out mortgaging many small countries.

(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst.  He can be reached at e-mail

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