Tuesday, June 21, 2011

China and Pakistan: A New Balance of Power in South Asia

Source: International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

With India ascendant in the global hierarchy and strengthening ties with the US, China is finding that Pakistan is increasingly important in its bid to fend off the joint Indo-US challenge in the region.

By Harsh V Pant for ISN Insights

Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani went to China on a four-day visit last month to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Of course, there is much to celebrate in a bilateral relationship that has been described as "higher than mountains and deeper than oceans." At a time when Pakistan is under intense scrutiny for its role in fighting extremism and terrorism, the world has been watching with interest to see how China decides to deal with Pakistan.

China was perhaps the only major power that openly voiced support for Pakistan after Bin Laden's assassination. During the latest visit, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao affirmed that "Pakistan has made huge sacrifices and an important contribution to the international fight against terrorism, that its independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity must be respected, and that the international community should understand and support Pakistan's efforts to maintain domestic stability and to realize economic and social development." Wen went on to state that China would like to be an "all-weather strategic partner" and will do its best to help the Pakistani government and people get through their difficulties.

To underscore its commitment, China has concluded a co-production agreement to immediately provide Pakistan with 50 new JF-17 Thunder multi-role fighter jets, even as negotiations continue for more fighter aircraft, including those with stealth technology. Despite this, Pakistan wanted more from China - as was underscored by its expressed desire to have China take over the operation of Gwadar port in the Arabian Sea west of Karachi, in which China has invested heavily in recent years and which serves an important role in the projection of China's naval capabilities in the region. Pakistan has suggested that the port could be upgraded to a naval base for Chinese use . China, however, immediately rejected this offer, not wanting to antagonize the US and India with the formal establishment of a base in Pakistan.

Understanding a unique relationship

Pakistan enjoys a deep and multifaceted relationship with China underpinned by mutual trust and confidence. Islamabad has prioritized close ties with China, and Beijing has provided extensive economic, military and technical assistance to Pakistan over the years. In fact, Pakistan enabled China to cultivate ties with the West, particularly the US, in the early 1970s, as Pakistan was the conduit for then-US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger's landmark secret visit to China in 1971 and was instrumental in bringing China closer to the larger Muslim world.

Over the years China has emerged as Pakistan's largest defense supplier. Military cooperation between the two countries has deepened with joint projects to produce armaments ranging from fighter jets to guided-missile frigates. China is a steady source of military hardware to the resource-deficient Pakistani Army. China has played a major role in the development of Pakistan's nuclear infrastructure and has emerged as Pakistan's benefactor at a time when increasingly stringent export controls in Western countries have made it difficult for Pakistan to acquire materials and technology. As such, the Pakistani nuclear weapons program is essentially an extension of the Chinese one. This is perhaps the only case where a nuclear weapon state has given weapons-grade fissile material - as well as a bomb design - to a non-nuclear weapon state.

On the economic front, bilateral trade between China and Pakistan rose to $15 billion last year. China's "no-strings attached" economic aid to Pakistan is appreciated more than the aid it receives from the US, which often comes with stringent conditions, even though overall Chinese assistance is nowhere near that provided by the US. With the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari under intense pressure from the US to do more to fight terrorism emanating from Pakistan, there are calls in Pakistan to adopt a foreign policy that considers China - not the US - to be Pakistan's strongest ally and most significant stakeholder. China's emergence as a leading global economic power, coupled with increased cooperation between India and the US, has helped this suggestion gain traction. Washington has historically been accused of using Pakistan in times of need and then deserting it in exchange for stronger relations with India to serve its larger strategic agenda. China is considered a reliable ally that has always come to Pakistan's aid when India has seemed in the ascendancy - to the point that China has even tacitly supported Pakistan's strategy of using terror as a policy instrument against India. Not surprisingly, Pakistan has given China a "blank check" to intervene in India-Pakistan peace talks.

With India ascendant in the global hierarchy and strengthening its ties with the US, the importance of Pakistan to China is likely to grow. This has been evident in China's polices toward Pakistan on critical issues in South Asia. A rising India makes Pakistan all the more important in China's strategy for the subcontinent. It is highly unlikely that China will give up playing the Pakistan card vis-à-vis India anytime soon. The China-Pakistan partnership serves the interests of both partners by presenting India with the prospect of a two-front war in the event that relations deteriorate. And now with a clamor rising in Washington to deal firmly with Pakistan in the wake of Bin Laden's death, Beijing's attraction to Islamabad is at an all time high. For China, Pakistan is increasingly important in countering the joint Indo-US challenge. South Asia is emerging as an important new front in strategic competition between the US and China, as well as China and India, and the region's importance is only likely to increase in the coming years.

Harsh V Pant is a Reader in International Relations at King's College London in the Department of Defense Studies. He is also an Associate with the King's Centre for Science and Security Studies and an Affiliate with the King's India Institute. His current research is focused on Asian security issues. His most recent books include Contemporary Debates in Indian Foreign and Security Policy (Palgrave Macmillan), Indian Foreign Policy in a Unipolar World (Routledge), and The China Syndrome (HarperCollins).