C3S Paper No. 0091/ 2015
On the eve of his twice postponed state visit to Pakistan, Chinese President Xi Jinping wrote “this will be my first visit to Pakistan, but I feel I am going to visit the home of my brother” (Xinhua, April 24). Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Sun Weidong told the Xinhua that they had invented a new “unique” name for Pakistan, “Iron Pak” a vivid description for the special, friendly and unshakeable ties between the two countries, henceforth to be known as “Iron brotherhood”.
“Iron brotherhood” coined by the Chinese, is a very interesting phraseology. On the face of it, it may denote a relationship of equals and warm the heart of the Pakistanis. But there is another meaning to it. It is between a very powerful large nation and a weak country that has decided to lie prostrate at the feet of the powerful country. While no third power will be allowed to interfere in this relationship, Pakistan may be wearing China’s iron shackles.
Another new in bilateral relation description between the two countries was elevating it to “All-Weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership” to last from generation to generation. All-Weather Friendship” between the two countries is an oft repeated description, as is the “higher than the mountains, and deeper than the oceans” description. Both China and Pakistan have eulogized their bilateral relationship in such flowery language as no other two countries have. The Chinese know that such words wash very well with the people of Pakistan.
In Chinese lexicon “strategic” denotes a higher level of cooperation and there are common grounds in the overall situation and the country’s core interests (People’s Daily, March 31, 2014). This also signifies the intensity of relations. From the Chinese point of terrorism, especially that of the Uighur terrorists who are located in Pakistan’s hilly border areas and support is drawn by them from sections in Pakistan, this issue is of prime interest and assumes the position of one of its “core” interests.
Strategic cooperation was reiterated by the two sides in the Joint communiqué issued at the end of the visit, stating they would further enhance strategic communication and coordination to safeguard their common interests. That is, China will expect the Pakistani government to act sternly and share intelligence on the critical issue of Uighur terrorism.
The issue of terrorism was the common thread running through Xi Jinping’s visit. The Joint statement noted that “The two sides will continue working together to resolutely combat the terrorist group East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the UN banned Uighur terrorist organization fighting for the independence of Xinjiang, China’s western province bordering Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asian countries.
In his address to the joint session of Pakistan’s Parliament (April 21), Xi Jinping applauded Pakistan’s efforts to fight terrorism and contributing greatly to the security and stability of China’s western borders.
In another unprecedented move Xi had a meeting with the Pakistani Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Rashid Mahmood and the Chiefs of the army, navy and air force. Here also, among other things, Xi mentioned terrorism and support to the Pakistani army’s counter-terrorism strategy.
The Chinese authorities have been highly concerned over Uighur separatists taking shelter in Pakistan, having a support base from non- state actors or may be even from the deep state, and launching attacks against the authorities and Han Chinese in Xinjiang. China is worried that Uighur separatists have started hitting targets far away from Xinjiang, including a suicide attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
The Uighur or ETIM issue was taken up as early as 1992 with Pakistan, when late Pakistani Prime Minister Benazair Bhutto visited China. It is reported that Bhutto was also told they understood her constraints because the forces arraigned against her were too powerful. The Chinese meant the religious rightwing backed by the ISI and the army. For some years China tried to win over Pakistani religious groups, but the experiment did not work.
In 2008, on eve of the Beijing Olympics, some Chinese officials, like the then party secretary of Xinjiang, openly blamed Pakistan for harboring Uighur terrorists.
Under Chinese pressure a few Uighurs were apprehended in Pakistan and handed over to the Chinese. Included among these was an ETIM leader. But the Chinese worries do not end there. There have been attacks on Chinese citizens working on projects in Pakistan. Most attacks did not come from ETIM Uighur activists but others including Balouchis. With Islamic fundamentalism spreading, and the ISIS having established connection with a section of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Chinese threat perception has multiplied. These organizations are aware of the atrocities committed by the Chinese authorities against their Muslim Uighur brethren. For them, therefore, the Chinese are a legitimate target.
Xi Jinping postponed his Pakistan visit twice earlier, once in September when Xi visited India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The unstable political situation was considered a security threat. Next, the Chinese declined a Pakistani invitation for Xi to attend the Pakistani national day parade in March. Pakistan wanted to create a tit-for-tat situation to balance US President Barack Obama’s visit in January as the chief guest at the Indian Republic Day parade and celebrations. The Pakistanis may have risen as the ‘iron friend’ of China, but they have not learnt the finesse of international diplomacy – The Chinese and the Americans have entered or are entering into a major power relationship, with Xi’s visit to the USA scheduled for September.
The best that the Pakistani leaders get are these tricks, irritation and a dismissive wave of the hand from China. Hence, Islamabad was put on security lock down, and Pakistani President, Prime Minister and army Chief were at the air port to receive the Chinese President and make amends.
Xi’s flagship and Chinese Dream flowing out of the country are the twin ‘Road and Belt’ projects – the New Maritime Silk Road (MSR) basically takes the land plus sea route encompassing South East Asia, South Asia, Indian Ocean etc to Africa and the Gulf and then on to Europe. The Silk belts are several routes going through Central Asia en route to Europe.
Iron friend Pakistan is riding on both MSR and part of the Silk Belts. The Road and Belt initiative must be a success as Xi Jinping’s prestige and success greatly rests on them. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a 3000 km land route connects Kashgar in Xinjiang provice, traverses an area in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) claimed by India, and with link roads ends at the Gwadar Port. Strategically overlooking the Strait of Hormuz, goods to and from China will have great access to the Gulf, West Asia and Iran. Oil and gas pipelines from Gwadar are to traverse Pakistan through some adverse territory and reach Kashgar.
This one engineering feat will reduce 9000 kms from the existing route from China to Africa, Middle East and Iran. The existing route carries over 50% of China’s oil imports. Oil and gas from this region is still critical for China though it has entered into major agreements with Russia and Central Asia.
Afghanistan is on the page for the belt silk route as well as the port of Gwadar for import export trade. China’s strategy appears to be moving to create a hub, controlled by itself, getting land locked countries like Afghanistan, Central Asian countries and even Russia access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. For almost two centuries Russia has been probing for this route through Afghanistan and Pakistan. This led to the Afghan war.
Geopolitics in this region has been changing fast. The US-Russia fallout over Ukraine brought Russia and China closer. A new Russia-Pakistan entente may be in the offing. Afghanistan and Russia are also on the same page to counter terrorism both for their domestic security and stability, as well as economic benefits. Iran is also a player that China wants to bring in and the Iran Pakistan gas pipeline could become a reality. China is willing to pick up the tabs. On the sides of this development, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) may make some changes with new membership, but not necessarily India.
Gwadar Port was built by China at a cost of $ 1.6 billion, and the control of the port has gone back to China for another 40 years. The port will have its military use eventually. Chinese naval ships and submarines would be seen there more frequently.
China has stepped up transfer of arms and military equipment to Pakistan. From sale of new generation of aircraft to an agreed sale of eight diesel-powered electric submarines and upgradation of Pakistan’s missile technology and assistance in miniaturization of nuclear warheads for use in battlefield conditions, the Pakistani armed forces are kept satiated. Beijing is aware that the army and the ISI control Islamabad’s strategic policy, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Hence, it is a wise decision to keep them dependent on China, and happy.
In the Joint statement, the Chinese side averred “China reaffirms its support and solidarity for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Pakistan. It appreciates Pakistan’s efforts for the peaceful resolution of all outstanding issues with its neighbours”
This was reaffirmation of China’s support to Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir issue. At the same time, the Pakistani army’s desire to open up a war with India is discouraged. An India-Pakistan war is not in China’s interest. Such a development could seriously impact on Xi Jinping’s ‘Road and Belt’ strategy, its neighbourhood diplomacy and carefully built relationship with India. He is keenly aware that India would be closely watching his Pakistan visit, with the Indian prime Minister Modi’s visit to his country in May.
The Chinese Mandarins are also aware that there are sections in India who are apprehensive of rushing into all out friendship with China and opening up the country to the Chinese. The experience of “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” and subsequent incidents still rankle with many Indians. China still holds positions against core Indian strategic interests.
Finally, China’s counter terrorism strategy. By only focusing on the ETIM, China may be making the same mistake the Americans made on terrorism. Unless all terrorists emanating from Pakistan are dealt with, this scourge cannot be controlled and eradicated. It is also a question whether the Pakistani army and ISI are in full control of all terrorist tanzeems they created. They can blow up Xi Jinping’s dream in this region.
(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)